If you’ve been writing for very long you’ve probably heard this phrase. We all hear it, ninety percent of us choose to ignore it, and then we learn why we heard it in the first place. I was part of that ninety percent. I’d love to say that I wasn’t. I like to be different, to stand out, but in this – I was right in the middle of the crowd. There is a reason that people will tell you to write what you know, and I’ll get to that, but let me start off with a story.
It was several years ago, shortly after I started to get serious about my writing, that I decided it was a good idea to write a fantasy, horror, western. I came up with a few really great characters, and a plot that was strong, yet intricate. The fantasy part I was solid on – I write fantasy, always have. The horror part I was also solid on; I even did a little bit of research about monsters from the American southwest. However, the western part I was not solid on. By fifty pages into the story it was clear to me, and everyone who read the short lived piece, that I had never lived in the American west, and that I had little interest in the historic American west. I just made stuff up, I didn’t care enough about the ‘western’ part of fantasy, horror, western, to do the research that needed to be done, and the project quickly died. That was when I learned to write what I know.
I said I would get to the reason that people tell you to write what you know, so here it is. If you don’t know much about your topic, then it shows. It distorts, or even destroys, the reality of your world – and this leads to readers who don’t bother to finish your book. Not knowing much about your topic also makes the writing much more difficult. I can make up stuff about living in the American Midwest, but the more I make up, the less confident I am in what I’m writing. The more I make up, the more likely it is that I will get something important wrong. For instance, did you know that there is abundant plant growth in the Sahara? When we think of the Sahara we think of unending sand dunes. However, while this is a part of the Sahara – dry, desolate landscape actually makes up only a small portion of the area that we refer to as the Sahara Desert. There are also scrub lands, and even forests in the Sahara. Something that most of us wouldn’t have considered if we were writing about the area.
Now you might know a lot, and you can always learn more. If you want to write a western, but know nothing about the American west then you can do some research. Better yet, you can move out to Nevada and do your research there. You can always find ways to learn about most anything that you really want to write about. However, if you don’t care enough to learn, then you won’t write a very good story. It really is that simple. For instance, my novel Among the Neshelim takes place in a desert. I have never lived in a desert like the one that I describe in the novel. However, I did a lot of research about the kinds of plants, animals, insects, people, and cultures that thrive in deserts. Then I did even more research about the way deserts work. Even then I got things wrong, but I asked a number of people to read the book and point out any problems before it was published.
If you stick to writing about what you are already familiar with, then you probably won’t write much – most of us have fairly limited experiences. However, if you are willing to broaden your horizons for the sake of you’re writing, to do a little leg work to find out if what you’re writing is even remotely realistic, then you can accomplish some pretty great things.