“Write what you know” is a popular piece of advice given to writers, and over the course of the many years I have been writing, I’ve interpreted it in a few different ways.
As a novice, I thought it meant sticking to what you’re already knowledgable about.
After that, I thought it meant putting in the work to do the research and become knowledgable about the topics you want to write about.
In forum posts I made in the last couple of years I’ve argued that it’s about putting personal feelings and experiences into what you write – drawing upon your emotional responses to events to inform the way you write characters.
These days I think it’s a combination of all three. Which is predominant depends on the needs of the scene in question.
Recently I’ve been working on “Fiarra Beginnings”, the latest version of my volcanic island survival fantasy story. It has undergone a lot of changes and seen a fair few restarts over the years, but this time I’ve been taking a different approach by taking it chapter by chapter: I start with notes about what I want from the chapter, look into the characters involved in the chapter and what their motivations are, find out what I need to know about to write convincingly on the topics covered in the chapter, develop a chapter outline, and then write the chapter. Then I move on to the next.
This approach has highlighted to me these different definitions of “write what you know”.
I had decided fairly early in the process that Fiarra’s background needed to be in a profession that becomes useless after the eruption of the volcano and evacuation of everyone who can get on board the ships in the harbour at the time. The setting in terms of technology is roughly equivalent to the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, so I made her a glass-maker. In the aftermath of the eruption, there’s no call for glass when people are simply struggling to survive, and in any case it would be thought to be a pointless extravagance when there’s always the risk of another eruption that would rain down more rocks to smash windows, or shake the earth to knock bottles off shelves. So to get that right, I needed to do a lot of research into early glass-making, including raw materials and processes. I have to know what I’m writing about after all.
For the secondary protagonist, Macky, I had a similar requirement: his background needed to be in the service of the Governor, but not in direct contact. I needed him to feel betrayed by the Governor specifically as part of his motivation. Initially I felt a gardener position would be fine, but I wanted a bit more prestige and a bit more of a sense of dedication and hard work, so I made him a beekeeper. I have been researching the history of beekeeping this summer, in particular in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, and my Dad keeps bees, so I have plenty of knowledge on this already, from the kinds of hives that might have been used, to the ways to prevent and treat stings. In this I am writing on a topic that I know about in depth already.
And as for drawing upon personal experience, that’s always an easy one once you have enough of it. I have drawn upon my personal experiences in work, after experiencing loss, after major life changes, in personal relationships with the people around me, and more.
Still, there’s always more to learn, more to know – and more to write about.