When I was but a youngster, striking out into the world of writing for the first time, this advice confused me no end. As a 16-year-old, my life experiences were limited to school, homework and biking up to my mate’s house on the weekends to play Mario Kart. How on earth could that translate into creative material?
Besides, I don't think all the life experiences of the world could help me with what I was trying to write: an epic adventure spanning galaxies. And it wasn't just me: whenever I'd wonder into my local Waterstones (which was a lot: I used to work there!) I'd wander around the sci-fi and fantasy sections. Books about world's conjured from the imagination, filled with the unreal, the surreal and he fantastic. Many of them excellent, many of them successful. The authors of these books sure hadn't lived in those worlds!
So I dismissed that advice out of hand and got on with writing my epic space adventure. And what an adventure it was, both in terms of the content and in the writing of it. I lived and breathed that project for a whole year, drew up elaborate plans stretching as far as book five, sketched pictures of the main characters, made maps. It became my life. When I wasn't writing that book I wanted nothing more than to be back writing it, even in my sleep.
When I completed the first draft of that book, I just knew that I’d created something incredible. A story for the ages. And all at the age of 16! I was a child protege! So much for that ‘write what you know’ advice! It was my moral duty to get this book out to agents as soon as possible. They needed to get this onto bookshelves and into reader’s hands right away.
So imagine my shock when those rejection letters came rolling in. One after the other, some without even a note of why they rejected it. Those hurt the most. How could this be? What had I missed? Could...could it be that the book wasn't as good as I thought it was?
So I hit the books, studying up on the art of writing fiction. Prior to that point I'd only passed a cursory glance across the basics, thinking that I could get by on pure raw passion and enthusiasm.
It was then that hit the trough of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: the phenomenon where newbies who are ignorant of the skills required in a craft consider themselves to be better than veterans. The more I learned about how to write - plotting an arc, building characters, theming, show don't tell - the more I realized how little I knew. Rereading my original manuscript after getting a grasp of some of these techniques and key dos and don’ts was a sobering experience. I couldn't fault the enthusiasm in my first draft, but technically it was a mess. Long, meandering sentences. Flat characters. Atrocious pacing. But worst of all, a general feeling of hollowness to the events unfolding in the story. It felt...empty somehow, like things were just happening and characters were simply resigned to go along with it, like apoorly rehearsed play. And all the while that advice kept popping up: write what you know.
That was a pretty frustrating period. What was I missing? I was keen to learn, to try and improve my work, but this piece of advice was about as helpful as the classic catch 22 of job hunting: that you can't find a job because you need more experience, yet you can't get said experience because nobody will offer you a job. In this instance, though, I was being asked to ‘know’ about space travel, about interplanetary war, about...well, a fictional world that I had made up! How could I know something I'd invented?
And that was when it hit me. That was when I really understood what the ‘write what you know’ mantra truly meant.
Because it's not just talking about life experiences. It's not saying that mechanics can only ever write about machines, or doctors can only ever write medical drama. Of course not. Jeff Lindsay invented Dexter but nobody would accuse him of being a serial killer!
No, what it means is you have live the world you're creating. You absolutely can build a world from scratch, but you have to understand it inside-out. You must get under the skin of you characters, know what makes them tick, how they'd react in almost any given situation. You must know the history of your world, how it informs the culture and traditions, the factions and tensions that play out to this day as a result of that history.
You have to know it. Completely and absolutely. So you can write it, and do it justice.
That was the mistake I'd made with my first draft. Sure, it wasn't a total disaster - as I said, I was in love with my own creation and had created this wealth of background material that sketched out bits of the world and history and the characters that occupy it. But that was the problem: they were sketches, nothing more. The characters had bios and I'd assigned arbitrary personality traits to them, but I hadn't actually gotten into their heads and tried to know them. The world I'd created was vast but sparse, seeming to exist purely to drive the plot, rather than being a living breathing place that exists well beyond the realms of the story I was trying to tell. I loved my story, but I didn't know it. Not yet.
This is what separates the good from the great. The good can tell a good story, but only the great know their creations so well that they pen the narrative like writing their own diary. The world J.K. Rowling presents in Harry Potter is a perfect example of this: the story follows Harry but you constantly get this sense that this wizarding world exists well beyond the story we’re presented with, has existed long beforehand and will continue to exist for a long time after. JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is famously just a tiny tip of the mythology of Middle Earth, and the sense that there’s a wider world beyond the events that unfold during The War of the Ring aren't an illusion: every detail of Arda has really has been meticulously crafted, most of it never appearing in the main novels, but all contributing to the sense of depth.
It's like the difference between shooting on a green screen set and shooting on location: shooting on a set that's been designed purely to present the story that's being told can work, but there's something about shooting on location, in a real city where the cracks in the walls are real and the cobbled streets are polished from the countless feet that have strode across them down the centuries. It offers something a little deeper, a little richer. The world is there for real. It is known.
J K Rowling had to walk through every corridor of Hogwarts and beyond before she could bring a Harry Potter to life. JRR Tolkien had hiked across every inch of Middle Earth and taken note of all the languages he'd found before writing the stories of the Baggins. They had to before they could write what they know. Again, 90% of the world they explored would never make it into their publicly released writing, but you can feel it in their words. That they're simply writing what is really happening, rather than ‘making up a story’. That, if they so wish, they could veer the narrative off in any random direction at any time and you'd not be met with a blank and unfinished canvas but yet more works to explore.
Finally, I understood. Just because it could never be a real life experience didn't mean I couldn't know it. But it did mean that I’d have to work extra hard to know the world of my space adventure. That I'd have travel to every corner of...well, not just a world, but an entire galaxy of my creation before I could ‘write what I know’.
It would be a mammoth task. But it wouldn't be one that I'd have to conjure entirely from my own mind. My real life experiences, such as they were, could offer rich pickings to mix into the fiction. The Shire in Middle Earth is clearly inspired by The Cotswolds. The journey of The Hogwarts Express is inspired by JK Rowling’s own train journeys up to Scotland. And that was another lesson I learned about ‘write what you know’: that if I were to use my own life experiences, they didn't need to be major experiences. Even the little things could help to fill out the corners of my world. What I can see from the train window of my commute. The colorful personalities of my colleagues. My biking trip from last year. It could all contribute to building my knowledge of my world, while also imbuing it with a sense of truth, of reality that rings true to me and hence imbues a sense of gravitas to my writing.
To this day, I continue to learn about that world I'm making. I'm still not ready. But when I am, I will be ready to ‘write what I know’ and my writing will be all the better for it.