Everyone says it. Like literally every writer, “Write what you know.” “The best writing comes from truth.” “It’ll work the best if you really know what it is you’re writing about.”
But what in the name of God does that mean? Fantasy writers can’t really know anything about what they write, it’s fantasy! Anything that is concrete in their genre has been born in the mind of some other writer. And what about fiction in general? The whole point of it is to be fake. Unless you specifically state in the beginning, “based off a true story,” your story is yours and yours alone. You came up with the idea by yourself. You didn’t originally know it anywhere in the outside world.
For years I struggled with this. I never wanted to write anything I knew just for the principle of it. I wanted all my fiction to just be fiction. I made my stories as wild as they possibly could be, just to avoid writing into the old adage. To me, writing what I knew denoted school work, essays, homework. Writing was an escape from all that, and I tried my very best to keep my fiction as far-fetched as I could make it.
THIS is what I wanted to avoid:
What I did not realize was that writers, good or bad, write what they know just by default. We can’t help it. Sure your story as a whole might not follow a completely true outline or pattern that you experienced, but a scene might. For example, I recently had this conversation with my mother over the phone about our dog:
Ma: “Pearl, the dog is crazy.”
Me: “I know, Ma, he has issues.”
Ma: “I’m trying to do the laundry and he keeps eating - RILEY! PUT THAT DOWN!! He has my bra. He’s a pervert dog, Rosemare, a pervert dog.“
Interestingly enough, Rosella and her mother have this very same conversation over the phone when she goes abroad to London (where I will be in the fall.)
Another such mama scene (she tends to make scenes my mother, maybe that’s where I get it from) has gone into a story. She was having a dinner party and spit out “Maddon” for whatever reason and one of the men in attendance looked at her with eyes as wide as saucers and his face lighting up like Rockefeller Center at Christmas time and said in the softest whisper, “My God, Cynthia. You’re Italian!?” It was just so comical that it had to go somewhere.
Characters from life also end up in fiction. As was already semi-mentioned, Rosella’s mother is basically my own mother. Her heritage is my heritage and her family strangely acts and looks a lot like mine. An evil character in Rescue Me is named after a guy who broke my heat (muahahaha! Just kidding) and Thomas recently adopted a phrase that … let’s call him my buddy, uses on a regular basis.
It happens with settings too. Candace goes to Fairfield University in Connecticut and woah! So do I! Little things from my life and experiences I’ve had pop up all over my novels and stories, even if they take place in 1943.
Even though I didn’t plan it, intend it or even want it, I wrote what I knew. Life has a funny little way of popping up in everything. It’s not the whole story. The whole novels are still fiction. But some little bits of them are true.
Write what you know. You can’t help yourself.
Creative Writing Status and Goals