If you search for writing advice on the Internet, a few common pieces of advice appear in almost every list. Read a lot and write a lot are two, and those are both wise and self-explanatory. Another one, however, can be debated: write what you know. You can interpret this advice in many ways, some more practical and useful than others. But, overall, should you write what you know?
On the one hand, if you write what you know, you minimize the amount of inaccuracies spotted in your work. Of course, there will always be people who try and argue with how your writing represents certain things; it’s more a matter of perspective and personal experience at that point. However, some facts–such as how long it would take to drive from Point A to Point B or where the sun rises and sets–aren’t disputable and you have to make sure your depictions are accurate. In that way, it makes sense to just write what you know.
Writers of pedestrian and other “literary” fiction would probably agree with this advice. After all, they shape the seemingly-mundane into tension and heart-wrenching emotion, and they often draw upon their own lives for authenticity. (Some may still cast characters and experiences that they don’t have first-hand knowledge of, so even that opinion isn’t guaranteed.)
Fantasy, science fiction, and other speculative fiction writers would beg to differ. None of them have been in space or fought dragons or the like, and yet many speculative fiction works are just as well-written as fiction based on personal experience. These genres prove that imagination and passion fuel writing.
What, then, should writers do? Write what we know, or write what we dream?
The answer is both.
Many, if not most, of us can’t write interesting stories or poems straight from our lives (although they could make for interesting personal essays). Sometimes we can’t write about the compelling parts of our lives for litigious or emotional self-preservation reasons. I come from a small town in Northern California, typical backwoods, rural America where it can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. I’m bored living here, can’t imagine anyone would want to read about my experiences unless I add some imagination to it. The parts I think would interest people are either too personal or too close to libel for me to write about until I’m long gone from the area.
We can’t delve too far into imaginative journeys, though. To err is to human, and readers are hardly divine when it comes to forgiving mistakes. For that reason, we have to put research into our works as well. We shouldn’t be writing a story about an alien invasion in Russia without researching the climate and socio-political dynamics of the region first.
Most importantly, we should channel what we know into everything we write. Our individual walks through life contribute something to our writing which readers will not find in other works. No matter what we write, there’s always something we can connect to and enhance because some experiences are universal (although not experienced the same way by everybody). Emotions read the same no matter what the genre; familial relationships and friendships have similar dynamics no matter the characters’ backgrounds; we all have our unique histories, personalities, and reactions which can add depth to our characters, whether they’re on a mission to Mars or moving to a new apartment.
What do you think? Should you write what you know or what you dream? Should writers strive for a balance of the two? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.