It’s the oldest, most frequently given advice to writers.
“Write what you know.”
Writers have been rebelling against this advice for years now and they usually end up sounding like pretentious twits when they do it (at least that’s what I think they sound like). Their main argument is that if they write what they know, then there will be very boring stories out there. After all, nobody knows about distant planets and alien races, wizards and fairies, and what’s really going through a murderous ghost’s mind. That’s why it’s garbage advice. People HAVE to write what they don’t know.
To which I say, oh bullshit.
I’m embarrassed by the number of writers that seem to think there’s only one way to interpret this advice. I learned in high school that things can have many different interpretations. In fact, you can interpret some things to mean exactly what you want. Sports fans, politicians, and religious members have been doing this sort of thing for years.
So instead of writing off this old bit of advice as obsolete, let me show you how I interpret it. Because I do write what I know.
First of all, I write a story, whatever it is, because I know that story. I might not know certain specifics like Chicago street names or the exact make of a revolver or how long it takes before rigor mortis sets in (that’s a lie; I do know how long that is), but that’s okay. That’s what research is for. But I do know my story. I know my characters and their motivations and their circumstances. Things might change in subsequent drafts, but for that first run, I write what I know.
Secondly, I write what I know in my life, too. I write about small towns in the middle of cornfields because I know that. “Spillway” is set at a lake I went to as a kid. “Another Deadly Weapon” features a car wash in my hometown and the main action takes place in a house across the street from where I live. The tree in “Bigger Than a Squirrel” is the tree across the street, too. The garage in “Game Night” is my garage. The walk home in “Wearing of the Green” is a walk I’ve done dozens and dozens of times. The town in Night of the Nothing Man bears a striking resemblance in places to my hometown. I know all of those things.
But you don’t.
And even if you do, I’m hopefully presenting them in a new way to you. If you think that’s impossible, ask my friend Natalie about that car wash.
“Write what you know” isn’t bad advice. In fact, it’s very good advice.
If you interpret it that way.