Write What You Know—Or Don’t?

“Write what you know.”

No one really knows where this advice came from. Sometimes Hemingway gets credit and sometimes it’s Mark Twain.

I’ve heard this tip from teachers, professors, and friends. It seems like common sense, but should you listen to it?

Benefits of Trying to Write What You Know

Writing from a lived perspective always makes your stories stronger. You’ll know the smaller details that bring everything to life, like the musty scent of the yellowed fabric on church pews that turned orange after years of use.

You’ll also start your writing experience with more confidence. The information that supports your plot/character development will come naturally. You can lose yourself totally to your writing and get in the zone without interruptions.

You could also bring a critical new point of view to something! Creating a main character who experiences something or lives with a condition that rarely enters the public mind will help readers learn. They’ll walk away from your story and interpret the world through a new lens because you brought something fresh, raw, painful or hard to hear to the table.

Benefits of Writing What You Don’t Know

One time, I wrote a short story where a woman loses her mind after living too long with a sister who gets under her skin. She reaches her breaking point after the sister is left in charge of the protagonist’s backyard bee colony and feeds them brown sugar instead of white sugar, resulting in substantial colony loss.

Have I ever taken care of bees in my life? No! I care about their survival as a species very much and respect them from a great distance. But I wanted to write a character who did take care of them, so I researched how someone does that.

I didn’t spend weeks, months, or years learning about the hobby. It was only a short story, so I spent a few evenings reading articles written by beekeepers and browsing tips on related websites.

My story was so much stronger because I was confident about the details. I knew what made my character fall in love with beekeeping, how she structured her life around it, and why the sugar would be her breaking point.

The experience highlighted a few things I loved about writing a character who does something I’ve never tried:

  • I developed an understanding and great respect for bees/beekeepers.
  • I practiced my research skills for a fictional work, which I hadn’t done very much before.
  • I learned to outline and plot a story around real-world facts that couldn’t change if my writing backed me into a corner.

These are things you’ll use for other stories later on. Your characters won’t always perfectly align with your life experience and interests, which is okay! Researching is a great tool to keep in your writing toolbox.

When You Should Stick With What You Know

As you’re daydreaming about new characters and storylines that will branch outside of what you know, keep in mind that there are definitely lines people avoid crossing.

For example, I never assume that I can automatically write a protagonist with a race or cultural background that is not my own. It’s a personal decision and one that’s hotly debated in the writing community.

I encourage you to read different perspectives on that type of decision before deciding anything for yourself. Sometimes it’s possible to write stories outside of your lived experience and other times, it accidentally appropriates cultures or perpetuates stereotypes.

Some people say that if you’re really great at researching and writing, it can be a good thing because it adds representation to the literary world. Others emphasize caution, because you can unknowingly write stereotypes that a writer with that lived experience would recognize and avoid.

There’s also a danger in taking space in the publishing world that someone from the underrepresented culture or background could fill. It’s worth checking your identity and privilege before deciding if you have the skills and standing to write a story or book from such a different perspective.

That’s not to say you can’t fill your stories with diversity. You should! But making your protagonist, theme, conflict, and plot within another culture or identity can be risky.

There are some great blog posts about this here and here, plus tons of published books on the subject of writing diversity in fiction.

Try to Write What You Know

Ultimately, what you write is up to you. Your conceptualization and research will help you decide if you’re comfortable enough to write something or if you should go with another idea.

You can always branch into storylines with other topics, subjects, and details as you grow more confident in your writing and research abilities.

Want a prompt to inspire how you use these writing tips? Check out my weekly prompts to see if they spark any ideas.

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