For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me to ”write what you know”.
Until very recently I had no real appreciation for what that advice really means. If you tell a professional explorer to write what they know, they likely have a stockpile of eye popping material to draw from! Otherwise, you might get a very stumped writer sitting about and reflecting on how unremarkable their life is.
Let me ask you this: Have you ever been to space? Probably not. Does that mean that if your book is set in space, you can’t write what you know? Absolutely not.
There’s a trick to writing what you know. Stay with me.
How did I figure it out?
It’s not my all-time favourite genre, but I started reading memoirs. Most of those books were written by people who had done extraordinary things and lived extraordinary lives. There were a couple that I liked above all of the others - Lives Other Than My Own (Emmanuel Carrère) and Angry White Pyjamas (Robert Twigger). I must have read Angry White Pyjamas a half dozen times over the years and by the time I was halfway through Carrère last October, I had started experimenting with memoir-style essays based on my own experiences.
The limiting factor is believing that you have a finite number of experiences to write down and that once you’ve exhausted all the exciting things you’ve ever done, you’re out of material. Stop thinking so big. That’s not how it works.
What I really enjoyed about reading Twigger and Carrère is that, although the books are about large, unique adventures, they are packed with lots of little observations, feelings and events which are totally relatable, mundane even. In the midst of the tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka, Carrère tells about how jealous he felt when his girlfriend spent time with another man. In the middle of a narrative about enrolling on the toughest Aikido course in the world, Twigger writes about his nerves at meeting his girlfriend’s family for the first time, the cockroaches in his apartment, his roommate’s underpants being stolen off the washing line and difficult students at the school where he taught part time English.
If we’re not careful, we get distracted by the mynock, exploding death stars and lightsaber battles, and forget that Star Wars is really just a story about freedom, family and falling in love.
What do you know?
Once you unlock that question, you gain access to a vast library of authentic, enriching material to draw on and pepper throughout your stories. How often have you watched a movie and been absolutely sure a line was ad libbed? Or been reading a book and wondered if something in the story really happened to the author, or if a character is based on a real person the author knows?
‘What you know’ may form the entire vehicle of the plot, it may provide a setting or it may be as small as a single detail or object. It may be something you’ve experienced for yourself, something you witnessed or something a friend or family member told you about. Good writers are collectors of life.
Here are a few categories of the things you know and some examples to get you going. If you’re up for a writing exercise, copy the category headings and start a bullet list of all things you already have in your life library.
This is the perfect place to start (no pun intended). I struggled for years to get the settings right for my stories because I was convinced they needed to be set somewhere (anywhere) more exotic than the UK. Then I realised that I live in a really beautiful place! I understand the pleasure in a drive through the countryside with the roof down and the sun on my face, I know what the mats in a dojo feel like to touch, how fresh straw in a stable smells, what the milk steamer and clink of cups sounds like in my local coffee spot. Perhaps my favourite - how it feels to lie in warm, freshly washed sheets. You might not take everything from a place; maybe you just use the defaced poster at the bus stop and leave everything else...
It’s easy to bring an extra dimension to your storytelling when you write about places - or borrow elements from places - that you know very well. Even better, write about places you feel strongly about, whether those feelings are positive or negative.
Knowledge and professional experience
Perhaps you’re really good at archery or a martial art. Do you know all about keeping horses or dogs? Maybe you studied print photography and know how to wrangle a camera and develop film in chemicals - the way your eyes adjust to the red light, the way the developing agents smell? You might even be a Mastermind-level expert on 80s pop culture. You might be the person who knows what it feels like to learn to be a really accomplished skateboarder.
Use your own knowledge, experience, hobbies and qualifications to give your characters believable careers, skills, working environments and actions.
People and Relationships
Real people (or elements of real people) have been popping up in stories since stories became a thing. You really can pick and choose; you can take physical characteristics, mannerisms, habits, the way someone speaks, parts of personality or behavior. I don’t mind admitting that several people I’ve met in the last few years were immediately cast in stories.
Use your knowledge of relationships (romantic, fraternal, parental, platonic etc) to build strong fictional bonds and rivalries between your characters. It’s difficult to write a story of any length without relationships and even more so without building at least one really good character. Even Tom Hanks had Wilson!
Feelings & Emotions
A straightforward category - bring your characters to life with believable emotions. Fear, anger, gut-busting excitement, grief, joy, jealousy. Put yourself back in the moment and then pour it onto the page. How about the way the hair on the back of your neck stands up and your heart pounds when you hear something fall over in an empty house? Falling in love, unrequited love, humiliation. All offer rich pickings for the page.
Events and Experiences
This category has an enormous amount of variation, and includes anything from kneading bread dough to base-jumping. If you’ve done something and you know how it feels, the emotions it stirs, what the anticipation is like, how it smells (ad infinitum) then you can write convincingly about it.
It could be the tiniest thing: searching through the mail for an anticipated letter, the wakeful excitement you feel on Christmas Eve - things the reader can identify with. Or it might be something huge that the reader can experience through you, like surviving a life-changing injury or summiting Everest.
I’ll leave you with my three top tips on getting really good at ‘writing what you know’:
When you’re reading (remember, great writers are great readers), pick out the elements in the narrative which you can identify with. I guarantee you didn’t get your education at Hogwarts but you probably know what it’s like to be bullied or to have a high school crush.
Carry a notebook around with you! If you spot something which captures your imagination, a person you find interesting or a place you’d like to remember, write down the details asap. You don’t need a physical notebook - an app on your phone will do perfectly.
If something captures your imagination and you’re inspired to write a few paragraphs, do it. However, as award winning writer Sam Reese recommends, try to work out a way to keep your little bits of writing filed so you can access them usefully and easily when their time comes.
Wondering what to read next? Why not try one of these:
- The Seeds of Inspiration: An Interview with Sam Reese
- How to Build Your Readership (Whatever You Write)
- Self-Publishing: Should you go narrow or wide?
Cover image: Pexels from Pixabay