Don’t Write What You Know
By Evan Braun
If you’ve received even cursory instruction in creative writing—such as the limited kind you get in grade school—you’ve probably heard the old axiom that coaches us to write what we know. Teachers tend to belabor this point.
Truth be told, it’s not without some wisdom. Especially at an early stage in one’s writing career, it’s not bad advice to stay close to home, wherever your home might be. It may be a fun flight of fancy to write a story about a group of impoverished North Koreans trying to defect across their homeland’s infamous demilitarized zone. In fact, that sounds like a really interesting story and one that I’d be interested to read. But it’s probably not a good place to start if you’re not from there.
So what is a good place to start? Let’s presume, for a moment, that the reader of this blog post is a thirteen-year-old boy from rural Manitoba. (By some wild coincidence, this is actually a pretty accurate description of myself when I started writing my first novels.) A good place to start, thus, would be to create a story featuring the one condition and setting this young man is most familiar with: the experience of coming of age in rural Manitoba. It’s not all that this hypothetical thirteen-year-old should write, but like I said, it’s a start. Our young auteur will be able to pull off the rural Manitoba story more effectively than almost anything else, because he’s lived it.
However, it’s a mistake to continue following the “write what you know” axiom too long, because eventually all your stories will start to blend together. They’ll be too similar, too homogenous. And that’s no fun either to the reader or the writer.
It’s therefore better to live by a slightly revised version of that old rule: “Don’t just write what you know; write what you can research.” Let’s go back to that story about the brave North Korean defectors. To write that story, you’ll need to read a lot of books and websites about life in North Korea. How have those experiences shaped your characters over their lifetimes? How has it affected their dreams and goals? You have to come to grips with their daily reality, otherwise it will be almost impossible to create a realistic voice for those characters. You also need to learn about the geography of the two Koreas. Just as critically, you need to know the history of the place—and the present.
At the end of the day, crafting that story will probably require nine parts research and one part actual writing. It’s a daunting amount of work. Nonetheless, it’s an attribute of writing that most authors come to enjoy, and which they absolutely must come to master.
I can hardly imagine how writers pulled off this feat in the days before the internet popped into existence. Now, a world of information is available at the tap of an iPad screen. The burden of research is still just as heavy as it was in the days of physical libraries and household encyclopedia sets, but the tasks have shifted. It used to be that the hardest part was finding the information. Finding information is no longer hard; authenticating it is, because the internet is rife with content, but a lot of that content is either completely incorrect or highly misleading. An effective researcher is able to curate that overflow of knowledge and pick and choose the most reliable bits.
So don’t feel constrained by writing stories in your hometown, in the period of years that constitute your lifetime, according to the specific experiences you can personally relate to. By all means, write some of those, but also feel free to branch out into the fantastical. The world is your oyster.
Just don’t forget to do your homework.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored two novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has also released a sequel, The City of Darkness (2013), with a third entry in the series due later this year. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.