People talking about creative writing are fond of advising aspiring authors to “write what they know.” But what does that mean? It can’t mean you should limit yourself to writing about what you’ve personally experienced, can it? If so, where did “The Lord of the Rings” come from? Tolkien wasn’t a hobbit. And if J. K. Rowling actually went to Hogwarts and wrote a seven-book expose about the wizarding world for us muggles, something tells me she’d be stuck in Azkaban Prison for violating the Ministry of Magic’s Statute of Secrecy, not enjoying the fruits of her success.
I imagine “writing what you know” means different things to different people. On one basic level, it means that if you want to include something in your novel but you don’t know much about it, you should do you research. But on a deeper level, I think “write what we know” means you should relate on a fundamental level with your characters and their fears, their desires, their hopes, and their drives. I’ve realized before that, unintentionally, I find a piece of myself in my characters, including and especially the villains. That’s how I “write what I know.” I know myself, right? Well, unbeknownst to me, in an effort to make my characters people I could understand, I made them extensions of me to greater or lesser extents. I’ve also discovered I use writing, in a real way, as therapy. Through my fiction, I address the problems of my own life.
WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW MEANS YOU ARE A PART OF YOUR WORK.
No, this doesn’t mean you make yourself a character (unless you’re writing a memoir, I suppose). Still, YOU are a part of your work in some way or another. Maybe you and one of your characters have similar issues at work, even if your jobs are entirely different. Maybe another character relates to stress the same way, even if his or her stressors are nothing like yours. Maybe, like me, you’ve been a graduate student studying Golden Age Spain, so you write a historical novel set in that time and place.
You have to be a part of your work because when all is said and done, you have to create your work. And that work is a HUGE investment of time, energy, and thought. It requires sacrifices, and you’ll doubt yourself and your project at some point, if not every step of the way. So if you, personally, aren’t enjoying some aspect of writing, and aren’t experiencing some measurable growth through your work, what reason do you have to work? None, really. And when it gets hard, you’ll procrastinate.
So remember, write what you know: what you know interests you, what you know you dream of, what you know you’ve always wanted to investigate. Maybe your story will fill a gap you’ve always felt in your life. Maybe it will help you deal with trauma or illness. Maybe it’ll allow you to share some awesome insights you’ve learned through your personal struggles. But no matter who your protagonist is, in the end, your novel must be about YOU.