As Gatekeepers to the ancient knowledge of storytelling, many an English teacher hath proclaimed, “Write what you know.”
It is generally the first rule handed down to the aspiring writer. I know I’ve heard it many times.
Of course, those who have successfully flown beyond the constraints of structured language and let loose with furious passion their rebelliously crafted tales inevitably cry out, “Write what you want!”
So, who is right?
They both are. Obviously.
“A good army cannot be built without strict discipline. A great army totally needs robots.” – Sun Tzu
The point that this completely accurate quote alludes to is that a good story cannot be built around a random assortment of words and ideas. There must be structure. There must be some sort of order involved. Even if the goal of a writer is to break the rules, it is essential to know what it is you are breaking.
Many are the criminals who know the law better than those who abide by the law.
Before you cast off the constructs of English 101 to write your own Finnegans Wake, start with the rules. Color inside the lines.
Write what you know.
What this means is to reflect on the experiences and relationships you have had. Pick apart the conversations between your friends and your foes. You have experience in being part of the human condition and that is what stories are based on. That is what draws in your readers.
Even the Greek tales of old, with mighty and powerful gods, all relate to human attitudes and motivations. Almost every tale involving Zeus starts with some hot new thing that he’s gotta bone. He’s like Quagmire from Family Guy. And who hasn’t known at least some desperate man-slut like that? I mean, that describes the motivations of almost every boy the minute he hits puberty.
Take these things that you know, the people, the experiences, the feelings, and work with them on the page. Learn to draw out the flavor out of your experiences.
Then you can take what you know and transport it to wherever it is you want to go.
Jules Vern did not journey to the center of the earth before he wrote about it. H.G. Wells was not involved in interplanetary warfare. Stephenie Meyer never met angsty sparkly vampires. Vampires don’t sparkle.
The best of stories delve into the unknown and the impossible. They plunge us head first into awesomeness that we’ve never even dreamed of.
To write something new and exciting, take what you know on a journey.
It wasn’t Sam and Frodo climbing Mount Doom. It was two best friends handed an assignment that seemed way above their league.
When you transport your experiences into different story settings, you are taking what the reader knows and relates to with you. The characters you create and base on real life experiences and traits, well, the reader has experienced those types of people too. We all have. It’s part of being human.
It’s what we know.
Now take us somewhere.