Every writer has gotten the advice to ‘write what you know’. It was my first bit of writing advice too. I believe there are two scenarios to look at when discussing ‘writing what you know’. Firstly, authenticity. Secondly, the limits of your imagination.
Authenticity is paramount to my decisions about taking on authors. The authentic voice that doesn’t seem forced, that seems effortless (but requires extensive effort to create) paired with natural dialogue is what lets you leap into the book with the characters. This authenticity often comes from knowing what you are writing from either having lived it or being closely connected to it.
However, career writers should be able to write about any location or type of character and make it authentic. The best compliment an author can get is a review that proclaims the writer must have lived in the location of the book setting to get such prolific accuracies of culture, voice, and characters when actually, they had never been there at all! This is the gift of imagination paired with extensive research. For example, the amazingly talented Helen Dunmore’s critically acclaimed pair of novels The Siege and The Betrayal set in Leningrad from 1941-53 were pure research that ‘grew from a lifelong love of Russian history, culture and literature’.
Early in writers’ careers they often write what they know, but the turning point is leaving the world of semi-autobiographical novels behind and delving into unknown territory with only your interests and writing talent to guide you. It can be freeing and limitless when you can let go of the boundaries you set for yourself. Separating yourself from being part of the reflection in your work leaves you room to create characters that are disliked, villainous, overly sympathetic, and challenged by a world that you have not personally experienced. When you let go the notion that readers will pass judgment on you personally for the characters or plot you create you are able to manipulate your text, and thus readers’ emotions, to the vast expanses of your imagination.
However, as Helen Dunmore’s novels suggest, it takes years to research accurately and emphatically, but ultimately worth the work. Writing what you know from your personal experiences, or what you can imagine to occur, paired with research on what you have yet to know can result in the illuminating execution readers are looking for.
(Image via Teleread)