Writing What You Know

by Meredith Cole

For every rule, there is an exception to that rule. But rules are useful for beginning writers. They’re kind of like the bumpers they give you at the bowling alley when you’re a kid. Writing feels so intimidating when you’re starting out, it’s helpful to have someone say don’t go over here until you’re ready, and you’ll be more successful (i.e., will finish your story) if you figure out what you’re going to do before you start.

But I do take exception to one rule: Write what you know. People throw this one around quite liberally and I think it’s mostly bunk. Writer’s lives are often quite mundane. We hunch over a computer most of the day until someone tells us we really must eat or go outside. We read books. We walk around muttering to ourselves. Of course, we might have had more interesting lives before we became writers–but maybe not.  You need to be pretty disciplined to write. Unstable people don’t often finish novels (there are of course many exceptions to this rule. But maybe they weren’t as undisciplined or unstable as we thought?). And disciplined and consistent people can be, sadly, a little dull.

If I took the write what you know literally, I would have to ask why should I try to write mysteries. I’ve never killed anyone. I’ve never found a body. So how do I know what to do?

A better interpretation of this rule, and one I can live with, is to write your truth about the world. Don’t copy anyone else. Experience life fully and write what you feel and know. Describe everything as accurately and specifically and develop your own voice. And when you need to write about killing someone, do some research and talk to professionals who know all about it. Please do not try it at home.

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