Write what you know, even when it’s about giant killer moths

When you start writing fiction one of the most common aphorisms that you’re likely to hear is “write what you know”.

It makes sense, but I get the impression from a lot of what I read that people take it far too literally. Of course if you have expertise or experience in a particular field then you are likely to be drawn towards setting your fiction in that area, and of course there’s nothing wrong with doing that, but all too often I’ve seen that the author gets lost in the specialism, it overwhelms the narrative and it drains the vibrancy from the story.

If you’re an insurance salesman then by all means make your protagonist an insurance salesman…just don’t devote large sections of the narrative to the ins and outs of selling insurance. You might know a lot about it, but unless you’re a particularly skilled writer then it will just come across as dull.

This isn’t just an issue for aspiring and unpublished writers, by the way; I’ve read plenty of published books that sacrificed the reader’s interest – by which I mean my interest, of course – to the minutiae of a particular job or hobby or area of specialism.

I think that following the advice to write what you know in this way is missing the point. So what is meant when people say that you should “write what you know”?

Well, we all know stuff. Everyone with consciousness and a memory knows stuff.

Emotions. How people speak. How they respond to good things, to bad things, how and why they express joy, horror, envy. If you’ve lived through your teens then it’s a pretty safe bet that you understand these things. It’s a pretty safe bet that you understand fairly well how people work.

The good news, then, is that although the deadly diarrhoa virus or the secret Illuminati codex or the giant killer moth may seem to be what’s interesting, in fact what readers find most interesting in fiction is how characters react to that virus/codex/giant killer moth. 

How do they deal with the swooping nocturnal terror from above? How do their personalities clash as they attempt to avoid those antennae the size of small trees, all bushy and horrible and swooshing left and right, ooh it makes me shiver just to think of it? How do they express to one another their concerns over where they are going to find a light bulb large enough to distract the moth for long enough to thwack it upside the thorax with an impossibly vast rolled-up newspaper?

Although you may be one of the minority of people never to have battled a giant killer moth, you will have experienced at least some fear, at least some adversity, at least some conflict; well, that’s what you know, and that’s what you should write. It will add depth to your writing, and it will make it easier for the reader to empathise with your characters. I’ve never experienced the desperate murder of a traveller in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, for example, but it didn’t stop me writing about it…because the important thing isn’t the murder or the post-apocalyptic wasteland, it’s the conflict and mistrust between the two people…and, like most adults, I’ve experienced conflict and mistrust.

So please, let’s all try to focus less on the giant killer moths and more on people doing what people do.


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