We have all heard those words, the first cardinal rule told to any aspiring author: write what you know. Some say that this is the worst piece of advice that could ever be given in the history of the written world. But in true Tisy Typer form, I am going to play a bit of the devil’s advocate with this one, mainly because I believe that it’s a bit of misunderstood advice.
Those who take the words at their face value find themselves at a loss; does this mean that to write a believable murder mystery you have to actually have the experience of killing someone? Or to write about an actor, do you need to jump out there and get your fifteen minutes of fame so that your frame of reference is authentic? By that same token, J.K Rowling should have personally attended Hogwarts, Suzanne Collins would have to participate in the Reaping for the annual Hunger Games, Douglas Adams should have dragged a towel through the universe and Tolkien should have annual birthday parties with the hobbitsies. And yet these are all still excellent books. So do these examples themselves refute the old quote?
No. You see, there is a very similar thread that runs through all of these stories, and it is a rather simple one. They were all written in such a way to make you feel something deep in your gut, something true, something genuine. These authors wrote about what they knew in terms of the emotions that they used. Have you ever been so scared that you felt your body move on pure instinct- you could run a thousand miles, pick up the baseball bat you have next to the door, scream bloody murder in the middle of the room? You have just discovered the animalistic fear that shades The Hunger Games. Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong, like there was something different about you that everyone else could see? Have you ever felt the desire to protect those that you love? Do some of those emotions remind you of Harry Potter at all? The truths that you need to write aren’t superficial events, they are the truths buried within your soul. They are your fears, your hopes, your dreams, your emotions. The thing that makes a book truly magical is the feeling that it can generate in another. The books that speak to me are the ones that seem to be reading my soul and reflecting it back to me. They say the words that I have never been able to utter. Those are the stories that change me, those are the things that make a good writer elevate to a great one.
It’s easy to get caught up in superficial thoughts and emotions of a scene, to plot and plan what you would expect a character to feel- which is right enough in its own way, but you can’t forget to add that prism of personal color. You need to tap into your own heart to convince your audience that the words you say are real. Use these lessons, these experiences, these deep emotions- and bring your work to life. If you wish to make an impact, you have to learn to bleed your soul into your writing. Otherwise you will be just another fluffy novel on the shelf, to be easily forgotten.
We want to see fiction that speaks to us because it is full of truths. We take inspiration from everything that we encounter in life; the books we read, the movies we watch, the magazines we scan, the news that assaults our ears, the coworkers in the breakroom- the world is full of nothing but literary fodder. We love the created realms that remind us of a part of our own lives. We are drawn to apocalyptic fiction because it feels like that is where our world is headed, it feels like the road we are traveling. We see a terrifying truth within those pages. We love Harry Potter because, in spite of the simmering cauldrons, incantations and wand waving, we remember what it was like growing up. We remember that girl in class who knew all of the answers, the boy that everyone wanted to know, we all had that funny best friend that made all of the difference. We remembered the friends of our own past that became family; fights and all. We also recognized the simple fact of a world divided. There were those that believed in keeping the wizarding bloodlines pure, and those that felt embracing diversity would be the answer to all of their problems. Doesn’t that sound like a familiar theme? We want to see something that we can recognize in a world full of wonders and adventures. We can look at the pain and problems of our own world through the prism of a story.
When I read a book I want to feel something. I want words that will resonate in my soul. I want to feel like I am not alone- because at least one other person out there has felt the way that I have felt. We all have such varied experiences to color our work. Some know the pain of losing a loved one, the deep struggle of dealing with addiction, the joys and frustrations of love, the fear and panic a midnight call can bring- we have more stories within us than we will ever know. Write what you know, be brave enough to remind your readers that they are not alone in this big scary world.