“Write what you know.”
This is probably the most frustrating bit of advice ever, and is no doubt responsible for more crappy, semi-autobiographical ‘fiction’ than the world deserves.
All to often, rather than unpacking this rather simplistic statement, newbie writers nod their heads and either start writing the Great (insert country of choice) Novel, or give it up completely, because they think their life is too boring to write a book about.
The problem is that this is not what is supposed to be conveyed by the bit of “wisdom”* above.
It should be more detailed than that. “Write what you actually know shit about.” “Write using your personal experiences and knowledge.” Whatever, just not an easily misinterpreted quip.
When the guru says ‘write what you know’, this isn’t meant to mean that you should only tackle topics and situations that you personally have experienced. That is an over simplification too many of us fall for. It’s also awkward for a lot of people because writing science fiction or fantasy means writing *about* the unknown. Sure, you can literally ‘write what you know’ if that’s what gets you off, but it’s not the whole of the thing. It’s not even the majority of the thing!
So a more meaningful way of looking at it is to take what you know and using that to give depth and humanity to what you’re writing.
Here’s an example. Let’s go with something you ‘know’. Say you’re a 25 yr old who love lions & fixing cars, have elderly aunts, and haven’t been around a lot of kids since you were one, and didn’t much like them then. If you write about a typical teen hero, astride his trusty horse Lucky, going off on a quest to find the magical widget, you’re not going to do very well because it’s outside of your knowledge base. It will frustrate the hell out of you (and any readers) because you’re not sticking to your strengths. If, OTOH, you write about a 20-something badass lion shapeshifter, who’s running errands for a group of witches working out of a group home, you might find inspiration springing to your fingertips because you actually know shit! The character dialogue has a natural flow to it because it’s based on your memories of talking with your aunts. The shapeshifter’s combat scenes will be clear because you know a lot about how lions stalk prey.
Even very young writers know a lot more than they think they do, and you can always learn more no matter how old you are, so there’s always going to be stuff you ‘know’ well enough to write about it. And the older you get, the more information and experience you will have at your disposal.
So don’t write a what amounts to a diary or a fictional autobiography unless that’s exactly what you’ve always dreamed of writing. Know your strengths, and play to them instead!
*Wisdom should actually be useful, not obscure.