I want to talk a little about what I think is one of the most confusing and wildly misinterpreted (and misused) writing advice of all times. I can’t count the number of times I have seen new writers in various Facebook groups asking for advice on where to start and getting even more confused when someone says, “Write what you know.” That combination of words means everything—and nothing.
A lot of people think this tip means you have to write only about what you experienced in your life. This way, you can make your stories more vivid and immersive. It seems like sound advice, right? I think so, in a way. But also, not really. I write because I want to talk about something other than the boring things I know and have already experienced. But let’s pretend for a moment this advice actually means, “Write what you’ve experienced.”
Conjuring your experiences and feelings when depicting situations in your stories is the way to go if you want them to feel real and relatable to the reader. Do you want to write romance? What did you feel when you fell in love? You had butterflies in your stomach, your heart was beating fast, you couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot (that’s me right here).
Do you need to write a sad scene? Maybe someone has died, and your main character is heartbroken. Have you ever lost someone? Have you ever felt really sad? Probably, at some point in your life. Remember what it felt like. You cried, and your eyes were burning. Or you tried to hold back tears, but your throat ached. You had a hole in your gut, or maybe you were in shock, and your mind was nothing but a blur.
But what if you write about a scary situation? I write paranormal horror, and I can assure you that I’ve never been chased by a ghost, hunted by a shapeshifter, or possessed by a demon. Maybe you write fantasy, and your main character is about to fight against a dragon. “I have never faced a dragon,” you say, “so how can I write about that?” Well, have you ever been scared? Most likely, you have. Remember those feelings. The knot in your stomach. Your clammy hands. The sweat stinging your eyes. Your heart beating so hard it made you feel sick. Your body shaking and your lack of focus.
Take this personal collection of feelings and include them in your manuscript. Tell your truth. Be real. And your readers will relate and be immersed in your story.
If you want to write about a feeling you have never experienced yourself, talk to others. Observe scenes that interest you in movies and TV shows. What are the characters’ physical cues? Read—a lot. How do other authors describe the feeling your searching for?
So why not just change this tip to “Write what you’ve experienced”? Well, there are still a lot of things that you will never experience yourself. Maybe the character in your epic fantasy rides a horse, and you don’t know what that’s like. Maybe you want to write about a police investigation, but you’re not a cop. Or maybe, like me, your main character is Deaf, but you are a hearing person. What can you do? I have good news. Everything you don’t know, you can learn.
Today, when we have such easy access to knowledge, it’s all right here at our fingertips. I’m a hearing person. But if I want to depict a Deaf character, I better know what I’m talking about. So, I researched, my friends! I based my character on one of my best friends, and I flooded her with questions. I joined a Facebook group supporting the Deaf community, where the members were incredibly kind and happily answered my questions. Don’t know anything about cops? There’s a Facebook group called Cops and Writers out there. And yes, with real cops.
So, go ahead and talk to people. Join a group of lawyers, doctors, or horseback riders. Connect with other writers and brainstorm together. Most people will be happy to answer your questions.
I know what some of you are going to say: “Who cares? If I write fiction, people will just have to suspend their beliefs.” Yes, and no. The more you research a subject, the more you blur the line between reality and fiction. If your readers are confused about whether something is true or not, then you did a good job.
The more reality you inject into your fiction, the more immersive it will feel to your readers. Many of them are picky, and you better believe that they will call you out on your bullshit. If your character has his leg ripped off by a dragon but escapes and manages to hop his way back to his village 10 miles away through a forest where he has to swim across a muddy lake, your readers will think “What the hell is this?” The dragon is believable in the fantasy context, but if the hero is not bleeding out and dying, or at the very least, getting an infection on his journey back, you’ll probably piss a lot of people off. Research what an injury like that would do to someone and revise your manuscript accordingly.
The conclusion to this is that you can write about anything you want as long as you do your research on the facts and feelings. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to limit yourself. There are no limits. Just keep on writing what you love.
About the Writer: Amélia Cognet is a suspense and horror writer who loves books, tattoos, rainy days, and fluffy sweaters. She lives in sunny California with her husband Christophe and her two-year-old daughter Kara.
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