Is It Necessary To Write What We Know?

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Guest Blogger: Darcia Helle

Advice can be a destructive path to follow. We humans have a tendency to condense information into sound bites, which then become rules. Consequently, we lose all the qualifiers and exceptions that once went with the sound bite. This is particularly problematic with writing advice.

Let’s take a look at what might be the #1 rule of writing, at least in popularity: Write what you know.

This over-generalized, four-word sound bite has become a golden rule for too many writers. And it’s absurd.

First, in fairness, let’s examine the merits that might have formed the basis for this rule. When considering a book’s setting, it is absolutely vital to write what you know. Each place has a unique, cultural feel. For example, I grew up in Massachusetts. People from Mass talk fast. We say things like “wicked pissa” (never “pisser”). When we’re going somewhere, regardless of the direction of travel, we always say, “down”. I’m going down the Cape. I’m going down to Boston for the day. I’m going down to my mother’s house. People from the North Shore have an accent distinctly different from those born on the South Shore. Some suburbs still have a small town feel, despite their close proximity to Boston. And at the end of winter, there are potholes the size of craters in the roads.

I spent a few years up in North Florida, which put me in temporary culture shock. People there speak slowly, with a distinct southern accent. They say things like, “I’m fixin’ to go out.” They are rarely in a hurry to go anywhere or do anything. Now I live in Tampa Bay, which is a hodgepodge of displaced people from all over the country. There is no distinct, cultural feel here, although each suburb within Tampa Bay does have a certain flavor, so to speak. The lack of a coherent culture is, in itself, a defining feature.

Have you ever read a book set in a place you’ve lived, and you just know the whole feel of it is wrong? Don’t even get me started on a certain British author who decided to set her books in the U.S., using American characters, despite never having set foot here and clearly having no grasp of the culture.

No amount of time spent virtually traveling on Google Maps is going to provide that cultural feel. Even a week or two of vacation won’t give you much more than the highlights. In order to correctly capture the setting and characters living in a certain place, you really need to have immersed yourself within that culture. You need to write what you know.

But, wait, even this aspect of our writer’s golden rule has a caveat: Put your characters in a completely fictionalized place, and your setting can be whatever you want. Or take a transplanted southerner, stick him in Boston, and his experience will be more like that of a vacationer than that of someone having grown up there.

Now I want to share why I think this rule of write what you know is, in general terms, a load of garbage. Here are some topics and concepts I’ve written about:

  1. Divorce, from a man’s perspective
  2. Killing for pleasure
  3. Involvement in a religious cult
  4. Being a teenage runaway
  5. Drug addiction
  6. Intolerance
  7. Dying
  8. Being homeless

This list could go on and on. If I’d listened to that sound bite and stuck to the rule, I’d never have written any of those books. I don’t know what it feels like to kill a person, nor do I know what it feels like to be homeless or to be a drug addict or to be a man. You see, a writer’s best tool is empathy. I have never driven my car over a cliff, but I can certainly put myself in that mindset of pure terror.

If I was handing out sound bites of advice, I’d completely skip the write what you know thing, and tell you instead to write what you feel.

As a writer, you might know absolutely everything about what it’s like to be lost in the wilderness. Or you might know—intellectually speaking—nothing at all about that experience. What matters is that you make me feel it. If I feel it, then I’ll believe it. And that’s the most important gift to give your readers.


About the Writer

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Darcia Helle is originally from Massachusetts and now lives in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.  She’s married, with 2 sons, a beautiful new granddaughter, and four very spoiled animals. To learn more about her and her books, please visit http://quietfurybooks.com/blog/