‘Write what you know’ misses the point by B. L. Koller (article)

As writers, It’s guaranteed we’ve encountered the phrase “write what you know.” While it seems good-natured, or sometimes used as a word of warning, this bit of advice should be tossed into the bin. Rubbish! 

‘But, Miss Koller—’ No, no buts. Everyone has different life experiences. No one person will live the exact same life as someone else. What may be offensive to one person, may not offend another. And there is no way of escaping that. Every writer will have at least one time, where they will publish a work, and someone will deem it offensive. Which, granted they are allowed to be offended, and they should say exactly what it was. Freedom of the press! Everyone has an opinion, and they should feel free to express it, even if everyone around them may not agree. 

But as writers, it’s not our jobs to offend, or coddle. We write for the love of the craft. Because we need to get these stories out of our heads. The main point I want to drive home here is, if you only write what you know, you miss out on so many story opportunities.

As a fan of History, and historical fiction, research is essential. Not just for accuracy, or the feel of authenticity, but because it’s part of the fun. For me anyway. Write what you know can often put a damper on that aspect of the writing process. 

I have never been a male, bulimic, or a victorian woman who practices blood magic. Does that stop me from telling these types of stories? Hell no! Through these stories, I get to go into different headspaces. It forces me to think outside of my own feelings. One thing readers need to keep in mind is this simple concept: Authors are not usually their characters. I say usually because there are circumstances where it can be done and used effectively, but it is not the norm. They don’t always agree with what they write, but in order to tell a good story, sometimes the writer, or reader must take a step away from the work, and think about why this may make them uncomfortable.

When I sat down to write my first submission for Weird Mask it wasn’t easy to write. Branson is a fascinating character who I do not always agree with. Do I like that he is a bit of a womanizer? No, but I wrote him true to what he would do and say at that age.. Ave I ever been Bulimic? No, but I have friends who were willing to share experiences with me to make him feel believable. I also did loads of research on specifically male bulimics— which by the way is more common than some might think.— but that is a discussion for another time. 

I’ve also never been a Victorian woman. Does that mean I cannot write about the era I adore so much? Or the Tudors, or the French Revolution? Just because we ave not experienced these things for ourselves, does not have to imply that we cannot write an authentic human experience.

I have also never lived in a haunted house, but does that mean I cannot write about what it may be like to live in one? Writing about Eating Disorders, and hauntings are two very different things in theory, yes. However when I sit down to write about such things I do have one universal tool that we all can use to write an authentic experience. Emotions.

I may have never had an eating disorder, but I do have insecurities. I have doubts about myself. I am flawed. We all are.

When it comes to writing characters like Kim, I think about what scares me to get into her headspace. It’s not so much about writing what we know. It’s the HOW, we can get around not having lived it. 

Allow me to offer an alternative to this nasty bit of writing advice.

Don’t ‘write what you know.’ Write with empathy. Take the time to care about what your characters are experiencing. Because if you care about what is happening, hopefully, the readers will too.

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