Knowing What You Know

I’mma say this once: “Write what you know” does not mean “write about yourself” (especially not “write about yourself as you wish you were.”) It also does not mean “write about your life” or “write about your kids.”

What it means is write the things you know to be true–emotional things, relationship things, physics things, nightmare things, hobby things, afraid-the-baby-will-be-a-Republican things…. It means write to your delight–write the things that excite, fascinate, and compel you to the degree that you have voluntarily become an expert–in whatever that may be. (I don’t mean write about your LARP, but do write about the things you’ve learned from it.)

It also–and most importantly–means write what scares the frickin’ crap out of you. Because there is nothing you know better than your fears. Compelling writing takes risks. Not necessarily risks in technical issues like dropping all your capitol letters and playing with your punctuation and syntax (E. E Cummings beat you to it years ago anyhow), or writing stream-of-consciousness like a bad ripoff of James Joyce (really, we all had to read him in school and once was enough) but the risk of exposure and rejection, of blood and laughter and discomfort.

When you write fearlessly the things that frighten or hurt you, when you layer them with the emotional truth of that fear and what it does to you to live with it and finally to break away from it, then you are reaching into a part of your readers that we all share and your writing becomes visceral and touches your readers where they cannot hide from you. It deepens your characters and story, it allows you to expand past a mere recitation of events into the emotional impact of story. Those are the stories that stay with readers—the things that reach deep.

The same will be true of writing the things that you love with all your heart–even things that may seem silly or petty on the surface. Expose the thrill, not in effusion but in choice words. Sort through the words rounded soft by overuse and drag out the ones that cut with edges still sharp and let them lift the story with beautiful economy. (And don’t be afraid to drag words up from obscurity or back from the brink: I have used the word “queer” in its non-homosexual implication in six our of my books–I love the word because it’s loaded with ideas that make people uncomfortable.)

Write these things you know the way you know them: in ridges and valleys. Even when it seems that life has been all dark or all light, it never has; there always has been some tiny moment of contrast. Like adding salt to sweet, the contrast enriches the story. Write the rhythms that you know: the rise and fall, the precious spark, the softly lingering chord.

This does not mean you can’t write about being an alien (you are not a xenomorph, but have you never felt like an alien?) or being a great warrior on a quest (you may not be an uncrowned king, but have you never sought and found your way, your mate, your sock, your wedding ring…?) Storytelling is about making things up and making them grand enough to reach beyond our little daily lives, but in reaching out, we must also reach in: in to our emotions, in to our common experiences, in to our truth.

You don’t have to bleed for every moment, every word. Your characters don’t have to be emotionally torn to shreds. But you, the writer, cannot be coy or unsure. You may be, as they say “telling lies for fun and profit,” but you cannot lie about those common truths we all know because we all share them and we will know when you fake it. When you pull your emotional punches, when you cover up your lack of knowledge with info-dump Spackle, that’s when you’re truly lying.

Do not lie, write what you know.

About Kat Richardson

Writer, editor, eccentric pain in the tail, bestselling author of the Greywalker novels.
This entry was posted in Writers Hints and Tips, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Knowing What You Know

  1. Miss Bliss says:

    Excellent! One of the best writing exercises I have done to date was to write down what scared me about writing the story I was trying to write. It was then suggested that those fears were the fears of my main character. That cracked my head WIDE OPEN and the story got so much clearer to me. Thanks Kat that was all brilliant.

  2. Also, just to say it more succinctly, Write what you know and learn about what you are writing. You don’t need to limit yourself by your own experiences and thoughts and ideas. Get those textbooks out, look online at those things you want to write about and interview the people doing that stuff. What ever you don’t know and learn about translates into new experience and more material to use.
    You have a character that is going to fall off a cliff and you really need to understand that sense of death, go out and bungee jump. Believe me, those feelings will not only add depth and color to your story but a sense of truth and originality that readers will flock to. Interview people doing what you want to write about because their mental perspective is much different than your own, after all, they’ve been doing for years and have grown accustomed to the facets that we think are fantastic: doctors and sick people, morticians and the dead, store owners and customers or employees, etc…

  3. SiSi says:

    Thank you for the great post. I loved the way you take “write what you know” and turn it inside out so that it becomes stronger, clearer advice. And I’m putting the sentence “sort through the words rounded soft by overuse and drag out the ones that cut with edges still sharp and let them lift the story with beautiful economy” and in front of me whenever I revise.

  4. Thanks, SiSi. I will have to blog about choosing words someday….

  5. Patrick Doris says:

    That was such wonderful advice.

  6. I’m working on becoming a stronger writer and have more confidence in what I write. I enjoyed reading your post. It leads me towards the right direction.

  7. Jackie says:

    That was brilliant. Really puts a whole deeper spin on the old chestnut which can seem limiting on face value. I really got a lot out of this post. Thank you, Kat!

  8. Absolutely brilliant. A real keeper.

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