Debunking Writing Myths: “Write What You Know”
“Write what you know” means you can only write about what you have personally done or experienced in the confines of your own life.
“Write what you know” means you can use everything you’ve experienced in your life to imagine other possibilities, other worlds, other outcomes.
“Write what you know” is one of the most misunderstood instructions given about writing. Most people take it at face value, interpreting it as, “Write about only what you have personally done or experienced in the confines of your own life.” If fiction writers were to interpret it this way, we would eliminate entire genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical, and 99% of mystery/crime/suspense/thriller. There would be no Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk, no Luke Skywalker, no hobbits and Middle Earth, no Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, no Scarlett O’Hara, no Sherlock Holmes, no James Bond or Jason Bourne, no Superman or Batman, and no one would have ever heard of a man named Stephen King.
If we wrote only about what we have personally experienced, what a boring world this would be. But we have imaginations with which, as the character of Chaucer (Paul Bettany) said in A Knight’s Tale, we “give the truth scope!”
I have chosen romance as my genre. I love the process of crafting my characters and taking them through the intricate dance that is the progression of their relationship. Yet I read these types of sentiments all the time (not about me specifically, but about all romance authors): “I don’t read romance novels written by unmarried women because they have no idea what they’re talking about. Writers are supposed to write what they know, and unmarried women have no idea what it’s like to fall in love and get married—because they’re still single.”
Being as how I’m still single at thirty-nine, have never dated, and have never even been kissed, it made me question my calling to write romance. And then I made a very important realization:
Romance novels are about SINGLE people! Yep, you read that correctly. Think about it. With the exception of two small subgenres (romance in marriage and stories featuring extramarital affairs), romance novels feature as their main characters two UNmarried people facing and dealing with everything that comes along with being SINGLE. And for me, being unmarried and having lived by myself for more than ten years, I find it very easy when I read romance novels to determine if the author was married at a very young age or if she experienced some of what it is to be a single adult out on her own in this world. Those who married later—in their late twenties or after—have a much more authentic voice when creating their characters’ SINGLENESS than those who married straight out of high school or college.
I have fallen in love before—even though it didn’t turn into a romantic relationship. So I know what that feels like. I know the heartbreak of the breakup of relationships (close, intimate friendships) when the other person decides they just want out or aren’t getting what they want out of the relationship. I also know how to read, how to listen, how to observe and how to take what I read, hear, and see and apply those experiences to my stories. I’ve never worked at a TV station, but I know how to do research and had the opportunity to go down to one of the local stations and witness the prep and broadcast of the program that Alaine’s show in A Case for Love was based on. I didn’t live in the early 19th century, but I can read books that were written then, I can read research books and extrapolate and surmise what it was like to live back then.
I write what I know: I write about people.
How do you “write what you know”?
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