Write What You Know?  Well...

If you ever read a screenwriting book or heard anyone give professional advice on what you should write, you've probably heard the same advice over and over again: "Write what you know." 

Unfortunately, too many writers take this literally.  Hollywood gets endless script submissions with stories about a small town waitress who loses her job only to find out that her alcoholic boyfriend has left her, her dog is pregnant, and her crotchety old grandmother must come live with her because the nursing home has shown her the door for non-payment.

Or this one: A car salesman risks losing his job if he doesn't sell 25 cars in the next two weeks.  Meanwhile his son is on dope, his wife is an alcoholic, and oh - the dog is pregnant. 

Now maybe a really gifted writer can turn these stories into something special.  Someone like Todd Solondz or Sofia Coppola can spin a yarn about a small town waitress and give it enough of a twist to make it unique and exciting.  But most writers can't...and shouldn't try. 

Too often, writers take "write what you know" to mean "write what you've lived."  Yet, few writers lead dramatic lives; if they did, they wouldn’t have much time or energy for writing. Writing what you know, therefore, can constrict a writer to a very narrow and uninteresting perspective.

I believe it was William Goldman who when asked if he always "writes what he knows" was quoted as saying, "No...because I have an imagination."  Imagine if every writer simply wrote about their own personal experiences, we wouldn't have The Godfather, Star Wars, Taxi Driver, and on and on.  The writers of these stories did not "live" them, the did research and/or made them up out of whole cloth.

So what does the advice of "write what you know" really mean?

It means that you should apply what you know to your stories no matter how fantastic and outside of your personal experience they are.  Not necessarily specific events but human behavior, reactions, dialogue, etc. For example, If you are writing a story about a space adventure.  Obviously, very few have ever had any personal experience in this area.  But stories are about characters and relationships.  This is where what you know can be invaluable.  How your characters interact, what they say, what they do, will be colored by human experience no matter what the setting. 

Your past dealings with heartbreak, rude people, overbearing bosses, petty co-workers, super competitive siblings...should be mined to give your characters and stories the ring of reality that will set them apart from the pack. 

It's also important to realize that you know more than you think.  For instance, you know what frightens you. You know how you feel when you're afraid. It's this knowledge you draw upon to make your stories believable to others: your fear of dark places, of the unknown, of pain and death -- primal emotions that everyone shares. If it frightens you, it will likely frighten others. Likewise with love, happiness, sadness, anger -- the full range of emotions common to all people. You know both what prompts these feelings, and how you feel when experiencing them -- what you think, how you react and what happens to your body while under the influence of those feelings. This is the knowledge you draw upon to make your stories real for others.
What else do you know? Well, you feel more than emotions. You know how the sun feels on your shoulders, how ice feels in your mouth, how your knees felt when you fell and scraped them as a child. You know what your senses tell you, and other people share those sensations -- tell readers that the paper cut stung, and they will immediately know how it feels, and thus what your character feels. Readers will identify with your character.

So far, by simply drawing upon what you and everyone else know, you've created a rapport between the reader and your character; you've identified the stimuli that trigger emotions in you and your readers and used it to make your setting, your characters, your story line come alive. All while sitting in front of a computer in outer suburbia.

Don't neglect the other thing you know -- the people around you. Yes, Harry's an insurance agent and Madeline is a housewife; what could you possibly find to write about these people? Maybe Harry has this nervous habit of tapping a pencil against his teeth while he thinks. And Madeline's whole face changes when she smiles -- suddenly, that average, everyday housewife is beautiful. These details that make the people you know so familiar to you will also make your characters familiar to your readers. Give one of them your Uncle Bob's staccato chuckle, or your best friend's father's unusual penchant for knitting, and your characters will be remembered for much longer than the cliche character who is merely shifty-eyed or the little old lady who knits in her rocker.

So what do you do if you want to write about a rodeo rider but you've never set one foot west of the Mississippi?  Get thee to a library!  Research is an important way to expand what you know and to find the details that will make your Nascar or Vampire story feel authentic.  Researching a topic can give you great ideas for scenes and characters that you never would have come up with using just your imagination.

Now, next time you hear "write what you know," you'll realize that you know an awful lot about what matters most in a story's success. And if you don't know anything about the setting, time period, or event you feel compelled to write about, do the hard work and research it.  What you know is waiting only to be shaped by your imagination.

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