very time I hear the write what you know rule, I think about J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien had a quiet, ordinary life: Sunday mass, lectures at Oxford’s Pembroke College, home for lunch, afternoon tea, and some gardening — As boring as a wet day spent watching The Hobbit. Tolkien rarely traveled; he almost never went abroad. Now, imagine if Tolkien had followed the rule write what you know! Instead of the Lord of the Rings, he would have probably written a dull story about an old professor who chokes on his English tea.
Write what you know is literary bullshit.
Yes, I feel better now.
But I am sure that the experts mean good. Write what you know is better than saying Go on a hill during a stormy night and pray to the gods that they will provide you with the instructions on how to write the masterpiece of the 21st century.
They do mean good. Yet, I believe that this advice may be misleading. It suggests, for example, that if you are a lawyer you can only write about trials and rich people who steal money or if you are a scientist you can only write about a mad biologist who clones sheep.
Write what you know encourages you to stay in your writing comfort zone, pushes you to write uninteresting autobiography-like stories (like the one that Tolkien would have written), and kills your imagination.
I totally agree with Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 Nobel Prize-winning British novelist.
Many other writers have had their say on the write what you know nonsense:
Write What You Know (Emotionally) – What Do You Know, Anyway?
Don’t Write What You Know – Don’t Just Write What You Know
You Don’t Know Anything – Writing What You Know is Not Literature
Writing What You Know is Dangerous
Oh God! I am confused!
Wait! I may have a solution.
After my novel Zagreb had been published, I did lots of readings and presentations. Man, I enjoyed that time.
At these events, readers were asking things like: Have you really been fighting in a war? Are you a real soldier? Have you really seen those places during the war?
No was my proud answer to all those very flattering questions. The readers felt as if the story in Zagreb were plausible, probable, quasi-real; as if I had been there, the eyewitness of those tragic events.
If you are wondering… No, I do not really know how to use a weapon, how to kill people or to save them. I pretended I do. Although I have never been in a war, I know what being hungry or scared means, and certainly remember a time when I have felt lost or invincible.
Your novel does not have to be real. It has to feel real.
Write about whatever you want.
You want to write about a man who invents a time machine and goes back to the future, to the year 24.345? Do it! You want to write about a scientist who discovers the universal law of nature? Do it!
Write so that the reader can feel that you know about time travel, or mathematics, or anything you want to write about. Be quasi-real.
How do you do that?
Like Charlie Parker does.
Replace “instrument” with “writing” and “practice” with “research”. You will get something like:
Research is the keyword!
So, instead of write what you know…
Let’s say that you are writing that story about the man who invents a time machine and goes back to the year 24.345.
Now you need to read and study everything that is related to time travel.
Perhaps start with some easy scientific books or novels that treat the same topic and that you find inspiring. Watch documentaries and movies. Pick the most precious details and, with those in your mind and in your heart, write.
On every page spread those precious details. Be generous.
During the rewriting phase, these details will be diluted and at the end your fictional story will hopefully stand on a reality scaffold.
The stronger the reality scaffold, the bolder your novel can be.
When I was writing Zagreb, I first wrote the fictional core — No info whatsoever of the real war. Then I studied books and watch documentaries; I interviewed lots of people who experienced the wars in the ex-Yugoslavia. I noted the most precious details — A water tower, a girl with a blue dress, a famous Cafe, a description of an iconic photo — and with those in mind and in my heart, I rewrote Zagreb tens of times with the objective of contextualizing the story within historical reality.
Your aim is to know by heart the reality of your story and to feel its vibe in order to immerse your characters in a quasi-real universe — Credible to the reader.
As Vladimir Nabokov famously stated: Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver […]
Every great writer is a master of illusion.
The “boring tea” photo was taken during my trip to Panama.
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