(Previously published on my website www.lisalregan.com)
“Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.”
-Howard Nemerov (20th Century American Poet)
I have never believed in that old adage: write what you know. Or at least I think that people take it too literally. I mean if you’re a doctor then you might write a book featuring doctors or medicine. If you’re a lawyer, you might make your main character a lawyer. If you were in the military then you could write a military thriller. I don’t think this expression should be write what you know. I think it should be “use what you know”. I think write what you know is too limiting.
We’re asked pretty early on in life to curb our imaginations, to reign in our creativity, to fall in line and prepare to have our tickets punched. Go to school. Learn this stuff. Graduate. Optional: Go to college. Then get a job. Get healthcare. Get a spouse. Find a place to live. Have some kids. Put them in school. Continue cycle. Every day life for most of us is not very adventurous. It may make us happy but it isn’t always a thrill a minute. The entire entertainment industry is predicated on this fact. Television, movies, books, video games, the internet. People need an escape, a release, an outlet. People want to get caught up in something outside of their lives, even if it’s just for an hour.
I look at my daughter who is three and right now her imagination is so vivid that she can make a game, an entire universe out of a couple of plastic cups and a magic marker. She’s like the Imagination McGuyver. She is constantly making up her own words and stories, songs and characters. Her world seems so much more interesting than mine and yet, in the grand scheme of things she knows a heckuva lot less than I do. She doesn’t need television or movies or books. That’s not to say that she doesn’t spend a lot of time on all of those things but as far as play goes, she can make something out of nothing. I’m constantly astounded by how vivid her imagination is.
When you get older and that imagination is stunted and antiquated, you need a lot more stimulation.
Let’s turn write what you know around. Let’s say read what you know. You can only read what you know about. So take my life for example. My morning routine is pretty much exactly the same every day. Get up, get ready for the day. Wake the husband and child so they can get ready for the day. Try to extract as many snuggles, hugs and kisses from the child as I can. Go to work. Come home. Eat dinner. Between dinner and bedtime play with the child whilst attempting to coax from her as many hugs, kisses and snuggles as possible. Get child ready for bed, put her to bed. Read/write/watch tv for awhile. Go to sleep. Repeat.
Now look, I love my life. I do. I’m content in a way that I never really thought possible. But for the love of God, I don’t want to read about it. It’s boring. And I certainly don’t want to write about it. I mean you could read what I’ve just written or let’s take a story by Diana Gabaldon, just for an example, you could read about a woman who was a nurse in England during WWII. After the war she and her husband are staying at a Scottish bed and breakfast when she is transported back in time to the 1700s and her fate is thrown together with the fate of a Scottish Highlander who she quickly falls for. Now really, which story is more interesting?
Fiction should not be about what you know. Fiction should be about what you want to know, what you imagine, what interests you, about the questions you have. Fiction should take you on wild adventures to places and with people you will never meet in real life. Fiction should let you enter a dangerous world where you get to be in the thick of all the action but where you are also guaranteed safety. Fiction should let you live vicariously through a wide range of characters. Writing fiction should be fun. It should be intriguing as hell.
When I wrote Aberration, the most fun I had writing that book was when I wrote the scenes from the killer’s point of view because he was having black outs. Does this sort of thing happen in real life? Not exactly the way I have it in the book (and I must say I think Fiction should be allowed to take some liberties but that’s another post). Does this sort of thing happen to me? Nope. Do I ever want it to happen to me? Most certainly not! But it sure was fun to write.
My current work in progress has a protagonist who is exceptionally fun to write because she says things that I would never say—her personality is far more loud and brash than mine. I don’t know how to be like her but it sure is fun to write.
I think if I had to write only what I knew, I wouldn’t write. What would be the point? It wouldn’t be any fun. I like to use my imagination, my creativity!
So I think instead of writing what we know, we should use what we know in our writing. And if we don’t know something, well there’s always research. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is one of the best group of books I ever read. In fact, I just downloaded the first one to my Kindle so I can read the series again for the fifth time. (My paperback copy is 15 years old and falling apart). Did Diana Gabaldon travel back in time to 1700 in Scotland? Surely not. But wow, she writes a hell of a story about it. I once read that she had written that whole first book (and possibly more) without ever having been to Scotland. But she had an interest in Scotland and the research she did while writing her book has served her just fine.
I don’t think writers should limit themselves to writing what they know. I think if writers had followed that advice over the years, there are a heckuva lot of books that would never have been written—good books.
I say use what you know but don’t limit yourself by thinking you should write ONLY what you know. Use your imagination. Don’t let it go to waste.