What ‘write what you know’ really means

Among the most common advice would-be writers receive is “Write what you know.” It’s up there with “Show don’t tell” and “Use active voice” as writing maxims.

At face value, “Write what you know” is bad advice. It seems limiting and can only lead to dull stories. After all, how many of us lead the lives of James Bond or Captain Kirk? How many of us ever have been knights or pharaohs or presidents?

But that’s taking the maxim too literally. Storytellers really ought to stick to writing what they know…but that doesn’t mean their stories can’t be about space opera heroes, ultrasmart detectives or cowboys.

What the maxim really means – in part – is to know your subject matter. For example, if you’re going to write about a space war, get your science right. If you’re going to write about a Revolutionary War hero, get your history right. If you’re going to write about garbagemen, get the description of their labor right. All of this information can be obtained by research and in some cases living the life yourself. Observation also can suffice. Get these facts wrong, though, and your story will come off as hack work.

What the maxim also really means – in part – is to ensure “real life” is part of your story. A real space hero isn’t perfect but possesses foibles and inner fears, just as any human does. The Roman soldier out on the frontier likely misses his home and family just as do today’s infantryman stationed in Afghanistan. These details about “real life” must be part of the story so that your reader can identify with the characters.

“Real life” can be expressed in a number of ways; emotions, sensory details, habits, and motivations perhaps rank as the most common methods. The student of ancient Athens will be bored listening to his teacher lecture just as today’s student often are. The caveman appreciates the warmth of the sun on his cheek as much as does the modern man who deplanes. The future colonist of a far-flung world taps his feet when he’s tired of waiting, just as 21st century Earthlings do. Jealousy over a woman can rend the relationship of two brothers in the time of David just as certainly as it would today.

When told to “write what you know” then, teachers and editors really are urging you to add the emotions, motivations, sensory details, habits and more that you know readers will recognize as “real” and to get your basic facts right.

So, what do you know? Go write it into your story.