Translating “Write What You Know”

When they said “write what you know” I don’t think they meant “set your werewolf poems in the landscape you walk everyday” exactly…but I do think that’s the spirit of it.

This is a writing rule a lot like “show don’t tell”. It is used so liberally and often without nuance.

I think I’m finally really figuring out how to do this. It’s been about 20 years since I started writing seriously, so this is a little alarming, as far as rate-of-growth is concerned…but anyway, a lot more of my writing is coming from a personal place. No matter how strange the subject matter.

I think hearing this phrase, people immediately leap to “but I have been very boring”.

I know. We’re writers–being boring helps us actually get work done. Unlike acting or other arts which can happen impromptu, we need to sit and be still for long stretches to accomplish anything.

And here’s the thing: I started out writing stories about ninjas in imaginary oasis countries. And now I’m writing…well, about the same kind of thing. What has changed?

My heroine is shopping, and her different ethnic background means she has to look at clothing for housewives. My hero gets excited about buying a box lunch at the train station, instead of taking one packed by his mother.

The were-canines worrying about being shot if they trespass on someone else’s land in dog-form.

And of course, I still need to do my research about the things I’m not familiar with. But I can also look at a story where I somewhat phoned in the setting details and when wondering how to fix it, think about whether it would be more interesting to have it happen in an alternate US Midwest, rather than an imagined historical Britain.

The phrase isn’t “limit yourself to what you know”. It should maybe be “draw on things you know all too well”.

The cliche phrase will still be everywhere, but now I’m going to think, “Ah yes. Do crazy things using details I know from my own experience.”

Which does mean breaking out of boring, every once in a while, to get exposed to new details. I’m thinking about letting some were-creatures take up residence in New England, too….

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