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 I was thinking about this phrase earlier today. "Write what you know" -- for ages it was something that my mum would throw back at me whenever I showed her any of my writing. "You don't know what it's like to be a police officer! You don't know what it's like to be a gay boy! [I laugh a little at that one now.] You don't know what it's like to be in a relationship! Why do you keep writing about stuff you don't know anything about? Write what you know!!!!1!!!" are just a small sample of the things she would tell me.

At that point in time, she was my main input when it came to creative works -- she taught me to draw, to sew, to paint, to do calligraphy and to read aloud -- and I didn't understand what she meant when she snapped at me that my stories were never any good because I didn't know what I was writing about. So I just...stopped. I stopped thinking so big, and started writing small stories about things I knew about, such as going on sailing holidays and going to private school. I leapt at the chance to experience anything purely because I thought I would then be ~allowed~ to write about it. But the spark died from my writing and I ended up retreating to reading rather than writing (a decision I don't particularly regret, I have to say, because I read some wonderful books in those years and my understanding of language grew in leaps and bounds).

As I read those books, however, I couldn't help but wonder how any of the great stories were ever written if the writer had to live those experiences first -- how did Shakespeare write Romeo and Juliet -- surely he didn't have a whirlwind three-day romance ending in a double suicide? How did JK Rowling write the Harry Potter books? She was never a teenage boy attending wizarding school. If they hadn't experienced all that they wrote about, then how did they write those books so well? 

It's a question that I finally resolved (or so I thought) by concluding that they must rely on a good combination of research and imagination. How else could they spin such fantastic tales? And nobody else has ever experienced those things so they can hardly tell the writer that they're not writing about it realistically.

I was right, in a way. Writing complex and believable novels does take a lot of research and imagination. It is certainly important to research well enough to pass as somebody with decent knowledge or experience of a topic -- or, even better, experience it. Nothing will ever trump personal experience for making things sound realistic and truthful. (But, as any writer will tell you, life is never long enough to ever experience everything in it that we write about in books. That's why we write books -- to experience things other than what we experience ourselves.)

I was also wrong, in a way, and so was my mother. When she was telling me that I couldn't write about police officers, she completely missed what I was actually writing about. In that story, I was writing about the morality of what we can do with knowledge and about self-sacrifice. I was writing about the nature of winning and losing and how it isn't always so clear-cut. When she was getting irritated that I kept writing about teenaged gay boys in California, she missed that I was actually writing about coming of age, the process of fighting for identity and, simplest of all, love -- both romantic, platonic and familial. The police officers and sixteen-year-old gay boys were only the decoration, enabling me to tell the story better and more creatively. Those earlier stories had spark, theme, and imagination to them -- practically every aspect was imagined, because I wasn't fussed with the trappings; I cared about telling the story. 

So what does "write what you know" actually mean? If it doesn't mean "write only what you have experienced yourself or otherwise learned," then what does it mean? 

It means "write whatever the fuck you want because you already know it." The research and experience is just decoration, the icing on the cake. The main body of the cake itself -- the sponge that's never quite the same when it comes out of a pre-packaged mix -- is emotion. And I can guarantee you that you have experienced every single one of the seven core emotions necessary for writing a story:
  1. Loneliness. At some point in your life, you have probably felt lonely. Everybody feels lonely at some point in their lives. So tap into that -- use it, don't skitter away from it like a frightened cat. You may have felt loneliness when your friends forgot to invite you to a party, for example, or when you lay in your bed alone at night, staring at the ceiling and feeling that horrible hollow emptiness that only comes with loneliness. And you know what? You can transfer that experience of emotion over to a kid ostracised at school, to somebody stuck in a haunted house late at night by themselves, to an elderly man who's just lost the love of his life to cancer. The core emotion is the same, so use it. 
  2. Sadness. Again, everybody's felt sad at some point. Maybe your dog died, or you lost your job. It could seem pretty mundane -- maybe you've never experienced that truly gut-wrenching pain and grief that somebody who has just lost every member of their family might feel, but it's the same basic emotion. Simply amplify it up and down, depending on what your story needs, and work from there with a nice sprinkling of imagination. 
  3. Anger. Easy enough. Revenge is a pretty common theme in fiction, as is righteous anger. There are multiple different forms of anger, and we've all experienced varying types and intensities. So remember how that fury feels and put it to use in your story -- see how the plot can change and thicken when your character reacts in a certain way through anger. 
  4. Happiness. I think that this one is actually a bit of a misnomer, to be honest. It's actually the search for happiness that is key -- happiness in itself is boring. There is no story in happy people doing happy things in their happy lives -- the story is when that happiness is ripped away from them and they have to search for it again. Searching for happiness is a pretty universal thing, and we're all constantly doing it, so make sure that your characters are always seeking happiness. As Kurt Vonnegut said: "Every character should want something, even if it only a glass of water." And why do they want that glass of water? To make them happy. 
  5. Love. The ridiculous number of stories written about love appalls me sometimes, I'm not going to lie. I find it possibly the most boring of the seven emotions listed here -- but for so many people to have written about it in such depth, I'm going to assume that it's important. We all feel love -- be it familial, platonic, romantic or whatever -- so make sure that characters always love something/someone. It's pretty simple, to be honest. I don't think there's much to say here, as most writers automatically write about love as it is, even outside of romantic fiction. 
  6. Fear. Fear is a fantastic emotion to use in stories. So many things happen because people are scared -- wars, hate crimes, discrimination, murder, religious cults, theft, etc. -- the list goes on and on. What happens when somebody gets scared? What do they do, and what happens because of it? Play with that and you'll suddenly find that interesting things are happening in your stories. 
  7. Confusion. This might seem like an odd one to have on the list, but bear with me. When we use the model of the Hero's Journey, then the protagonist must go through a cross-over from the Known world to the Unknown world. Logically, that is going to result in a level of disorientation, even when the change isn't physical or literal but simply a change in situation -- going from something that you known and understand to something new and intimidating is confusing and you don't really know what's going on or what to do. That panic-edged confusion is hugely important in stories, because it breaks down your character and lets the reader see what they're really made of. Fighting off dragons with flaming swords? Pssh. Stick your character in a situation where they genuinely don't know how to react, instead, and see what extra levels you can bring to your characterisation and story. 
[This is just my own model and is by no means comprehensive -- feel free to mix and match your own, if that's what works for you.]

TL;DR -- "write what you know" doesn't mean "write what you've experienced or otherwise researched." It means "write everything and anything because you know the core aspects of the story already." It means "fuck the rules you've been told -- you're a human being and therefore you can write about human beings."

Simple as.  

[As always, anon commenting is enabled. Discussion is love. ♥]
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