Write What You Know ~ I Don’t Think So!
by Deborah O’Neill Cordes
Write what you know. It’s said to be sage advice from the venerable author Mark Twain, but the provenance can’t be verified. Whether he actually said it or not, does the quote have merit? How would it be possible to write about the fantastic or paranormal if authors strictly adhered to this old truism?
Or are people misinterpreting what the phrase actually means?
I have a friend, a fellow author, who chooses to write about small town America, because that’s where she grew up and it’s what she knows. She never considered writing about anything else, yet she emphasized it was her personal choice, and advised me to seek my own comfort level when choosing genres. According to her, the key isn’t to writing about the places and things familiar to you, but the memories of the emotions you’ve experienced in life and your observations of – and compassion for – others.
And she’s correct. As an author of time travel fiction, I’ve embarked upon mind journeys to some fantastical and distant time periods, eras and places impossible to visit, or wholly conjured by my mind: ancient Rome, the near future on Mars, the empire of Genghis Khan, Elizabethan England, and even an alternate universe where dinosaurian creatures have evolved to intelligence. And while research about these faraway realms provided the framework for my tales, my personal experiences have given them sparks of life, whether coming from the grief I felt when my dog died in my arms, later reimagined in a scene depicting the death of the infant son of a Roman princess, to the wonder I experienced when visiting the slopes of a Hawaiian volcano, reworked into the awe felt by astronauts standing before Mars’ vast Olympus Mons.
Write what you know – I don’t think so. The title of this piece refers to the mistaken notion that we, as authors, should never stretch our minds to the limits and imagine the impossible. Consider novels and screenplays like Star Trek in all of its incarnations, H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the tales of Narnia and Middle Earth, Harry Potter, and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. They’re loved by millions, and why? Because they were written by authors who understood the true meaning of “write what you know,” who’ve gripped their readers with their passions, foibles, tragedies, and triumphs, brought to life by their mighty pens and fearless imaginations.
My author friend recently shared something interesting with me; she may attempt writing in a new setting, even a different genre, far away from her small town comforts. I say more power to her. Lady, reach for the stars! But there are no rights or wrongs here. On the contrary, we must follow our hearts and stay true to what works for us. Observe the world, grasp your emotions and hold them tight, and then tuck the memories away, to be used in your writing. And no matter how original or fantastic your fictional worlds become, they will have emerged from your soul and be… truly… what you know.