Should you only write what you know?

You’ve probably heard the old dictum: ‘Write only what you know’. The unspoken ending for this line is ‘… or run the risk of looking like an idiot.’ Okay, then. Let’s run the risk!

When I first started writing fiction seriously, I took the quote to heart. I’m a lawyer, so I should write a legal thriller, right? I tried. It didn’t work for me. Although I enjoy reading them, writing one didn’t excite me the way it should. Needless to say, I abandoned the first draft midway, and started looking around for something else to work on. I’ve spent far too long messing about with things that I thought I should be writing, rather than asking myself what I really wanted to write.

Why the saying is kind of true

There is some merit to the dictum. It’s easier to write about something you are familiar with. You’ll have the confidence to go forward without always checking over your shoulder to make sure you haven’t made too many mistakes about the world your story inhabits.

And yes, factual errors do matter! Nothing makes a writer lose credibility faster than sloppy research. There will always be a reader who knows. When a barrister in an Australian or British novel strides dramatically around the courtroom while questioning a witness, I find myself getting edgy (they must stand behind the bar table). And then if s/he advises the client to ‘take the fifth’, I start wishing the writer would uphold their own right to silence! Anal, I know, but it doesn’t take much for readers to lose faith.

Don’t take it literally

Having said that, however, we shouldn’t take the saying too literally. If we did, the world of fiction would be a very dry and dull place. There would be no Harry Potter, no Darth Vader. No magic, no time travel, no vampires. Even stories set in the real world would be far more rigid and restrained. Sure, many writers have experienced incredible things that translate into breathtaking stories. Many more haven’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine them.

Let your imagination roam

Getting too caught up in ‘writing what you know’ stifles creativity. Start from the familiar, but don’t be afraid to branch out into unknown territory.  Always ask yourself ‘What if?’ Then, if you’re not sure of something, look it up or ask someone. Thanks to the internet, research today is easier than ever before, and you can always go back and correct any mistakes that crop up.

Write what you feel

I think what the saying really means is write about emotions that you know. Fear, anger, jealousy, elation. All part of the human condition. All familiar to your readers. It doesn’t matter if your story is set in your home town, a war zone or another planet. If you write about the sorts of feelings that readers can connect with, your story will ring true.

How about you?

Have you come across any examples of sloppy research that set your teeth on edge? Like a boy fastening his zipper in a story set in the 1700s? Or a Spartan soldier sipping a coffee before setting off to battle? Care to share them them in the comments section?

Photo credits: Darwin Bell / Foter.com / CC BY-NC      Kalexanderson / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

4 comments

  1. Vasudha

    I had a good chuckle over your thoughts on courtroom credibility! I get in a lather over medical misrepresentation (like the team of doctors on House who are all diagnosticians, surgeons, physicians and pathologists in one, and treat only a single patient at any time – yeah right!!)

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