Why I don’t write what I know

Well met, everyone, and welcome back to the blog! Recently, I was asked why I write fantasy with supernatural creatures instead of writing stories in a so-called “normal” setting. Aside from the bitter memories of people gatekeeping fantasy and science fiction as “not classic literature” (a day may come when I write about that in another post, but it is not this day), I don’t like to read about things that I have to deal with in my everyday life. I read novels to escape reality, so why in all the high heavens would I want to write about reality? In addition, there’s the dreaded phrase “write what you know”, which I’ve seen be credited to Mark Twain. Even though I do appreciate Mark Twain’s wit in many cases, I don’t believe this is a helpful piece of advice as it is often presented. While I often agree with the idea that you have to learn the rules before you can break them, in my opinion, this rule borders on ridiculous.

As I’ve been working towards editing a draft of The Hollow Bones with the intent to send it off to beta readers, I’ve basically flouted the idea of “write what you know”, but at the same time, there are points I can take from this advice. Do I have firsthand experience about life in late 18th, early 19th century New York state? No. Does that stop me from writing my story by doing research about that time period and writing about it to the best of my ability, as well as drawing on similar experiences in my own life? That answer is also no. While there’s something to be said for writing about what you have experienced firsthand, I think it’s too easy for this advice to limit us to semi-autobiographical writing and in my case, doesn’t allow for fantastical elements that could allow for a nice temporary escape from daily life.

While I was writing this article, I put up a poll on my Twitter to see how many of us had even heard the phrase “write what you know” in our time writing. At the end of the 24-hour poll, six of the eight contributors had voted that yes, they had heard that phrase before. Now here’s the question: if so many writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, Dan Brown, Avi, and Philip Pullman advise (at least partially) against the “write what you know” cliché, why are a decent majority of writers still being taught this? I want to hear from you: have you heard the phrase “write what you know”when you’ve been writing? How do you interpret this in your writing process? Please let me know in the comments section below!

Thank you so much for reading! Until next time, stay magical, everyone!

Why I don't write what I know

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