Do a little search for this phrase—write what you know (WWYK)—and you’ll get all sorts of articles, some deeper, more knowing, than others. Some of these articles contradict. Some make the concept more difficult than it needs to be.
But I’m here to make a case for writing what you know—because I have been seeing a lot of (ahem) outlandish novels* from (often) first-time authors who clearly aren’t writing anything based in what they know deep in their bones. And OK, it’s fiction, I get it—you’re making it up. But I still don’t buy it, because you’re not really writing what you know, and as a reader I can sense the lack of organic authenticity.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked on novels set in some exotic place, and/or with an unusual set of circumstances, and/or with a completely unbelievable protagonist, and/or with a cause the author wants to advance … and everything just feels off and awkward and forced.
Here’s a classic violation of the Principle of WWYK: we Americans speak the same language—and many of our cultural markers have the same origins as—our cousins in the British Isles, and yet the differences between the lives of residents of Britain and the United States is vast. Just ask accomplished British author Zadie Smith how vast; she found out when she set a novel—not her first—in New York. She was living in New York at the time, and she thought she knew the place—but she didn’t. She later told an audience at a book festival that she would “never set another book in the US after her experience with her 2005 novel On Beauty,” according to the Guardian.
It’s an extreme example, perhaps, but when Smith, a Londoner by birth, sets a novel in England, she knows that milieu without even thinking about it. It’s organic. Write what you know.
This is what I mean. In an article in the Atlantic called, interestingly and counterintuitively, “Don’t Write What You Know,” author and college professor Bret Anthony Johnston says,
To be perfectly clear: I don’t tell students not to ferret through their lives for potential stories. I don’t want, say, a soldier who served in Iraq to shy away from writing war stories. Quite the opposite. I want him to freight his fiction with rich details of combat. I want the story to evoke the texture of the sand and the noise of a Baghdad bazaar, the terrible and beautiful shade of blue smoke ribboning from the barrel of his M-4. His experience should liberate his imagination, not restrict it. Of course I want him to take inspiration where he can find it. What I don’t want—and what’s prone to happen when writers set out to write what they know—is for him to think an imagined story is less urgent, less harrowing or authentic, than a true story.
Johnston calls this sort of WWYK “emotional integrity,” and that’s exactly what we are looking for. Not autobiography—though that, too, can be mined for emotional integrity. Last week I used Pat Conroy’s work as an example of overwriting, but note also that all of Conroy’s material is a superior example of WWYK. From his teaching experience to his abusive father, from his experience in a military family to the places he lived up and down the southern eastern seaboard, from his own experiences in therapy to his sister’s institutionalization with mental illness and his brother’s suicide—all of these details and many more show up in Conroy’s fiction. And there is not a detail out of place, there is not a story that feels inorganic. If there ever was anybody who knew from WWYK, Pat was that writer. (James Lee Burke is another.)
I’ve seen this excellent use of WWYK, too, in the books of writers I know personally, have worked with, and call my friends: one grew up in the small farming communities of West Virginia’s Appalachia and uses what she knows about this world (people and place) when she writes; another who grew up and lives in west Texas (a different milieu entirely from Appalachia!), and sets her novels there; and yet another who has expanded on the tiniest of autobiographical details to develop rich, rewarding novels of great depth that bear no resemblance to her own life whatsoever.
Write what you know. Organic authenticity. Emotional integrity. It’s hard to write past your personal frame of reference, no matter how accomplished you are, so use that material instead. Literary agent Amanda Luedeke enjoys visiting the hometowns and important sites of authors she loves. In an article about visiting John Steinbeck’s gravesite, she says,
In Salinas and in Monterey and in the strawberry farms and cattle ranches in between it was as if I had been transported to a world that I’d always thought of as fake.** And yet there it was—real. It had been modernized, no doubt. But the winding coastal streets, the smell of the ocean, the whales in the bay, the ever-pressing presence of the distant ranges surrounding the Salinas Valley were real. And they were just as he had written.
This is the power of writing what you know. Of taking something that may seem ordinary and plain and boring to you and describing it with such truth and care that a girl thousands of miles away can visit for the first time decades after the stories have been written and published and think, “I’ve been here before. Many, many times.” (Emphasis mine.)
And yet … so often folks who want to write, who have a story, go off on a tangent, even to a foreign country, away from everything they know. I know this because sometimes I am asked to edit them.
Aside from the exotic locales, I have seen early novels that are working out an unrequited romantic relationship from the author’s past. But when you start writing a wish-fulfillment novel, making the main character a proxy for yourself, while you may think you’re writing what you know, what you’re really doing is fantasizing. And the only person who’s interested in that story is, well … you. You should trust Your Editor on this one.
Or it has elements of a past relationship (not necessarily romantic) or something else that is “true,” like a protagonist who suffers from depression. Or it’s a personal fantasy (you meet a really rich guy who falls madly in love with you … oh, wait, E. L. James has that one covered).
Write what you know doesn’t necessarily mean write autobiographical fiction, although, like Pat Conroy, you certainly can and should use details—truths—from your life, with care. Truth and care, see? WWYK doesn’t necessarily mean write about something that really happened either. To you. I can’t tell you how many times I have questioned an author about a scene (“This scene doesn’t ring true,” I say, or, if I’m cranky, “I don’t believe this scene”) and been told, “Well, it happened to me,” which shuts right down any conversation about realism, about authenticity, and about fantastical scenes taking over your plot.
Or, “Well, I lived there.” Recently I read a mystery/police procedural by a Canadian author now living in France. The book (it’s one of a series) is also set in France, with French characters (as opposed to, say, a Canadian protagonist). I’d wanted to like it—and there were aspects of it I did like—but it just didn’t ring true, particularly in some of the word choices. I wonder if the French—as French characters in this novel did—use the word tummy (or, that is, the French equivalent) when they mean to refer to a stomach, for just one off-putting example. This also is a classic case of violating the Principle of WWYK. I would posit that a Canadian expat in France should make her protagonist an outsider (she surely knows that experience), rather than using French protagonists. See the difference?
Write what you know. Organic authenticity. Emotional integrity. Truth and care …
WWYK doesn’t mean you should pepper your dialogue with “um,” either, or begin every sentence with “Well” or “So.” But that’s real, right? That’s the argument I get from the defensive first-time novelist: people really do talk like that. Maybe they do, but it’s tiresome to read and doesn’t move the conversation or the plot forward, so skip it. Please.
No, WWYK means getting the underpinnings right. Bret Anthony Johnston puts it like this:
Instead of thinking of my experiences as structures I wanted to erect in fiction, I started conceiving of them as the scaffolding that would be torn down once the work was complete. I took small details from my life to evoke a place and the people who inhabit it, but those details served to illuminate my imagination. (Emphasis mine.)
Write what you know. Use the small, telling details about a place or about the human condition. (I’ve written about this here and here.) If you get the underlying structure—emotions, characterization, or milieu—right (because you know them), then you can lay a fiction—a story—on top of it, and all will be well. I really do think Johnston and I agree, no matter that he says don’t and I say do, or that he says scaffolding and I say underpinning.
This is nowhere more important than in your first novel. Writing a novel is hard enough; there are a lot of moving parts. Write what you know.
* Note: we’re not talking about fantasy or science fiction here. That’s a different post altogether.
** I love this line, because I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, about an hour’s drive from Steinbeck country. I always knew it was real—but I get it.
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