This writing “rule” is a real bitch. It’s the one which gave me more worries and stress than anything else.
I came across this bit of writing advice in the early 90’s, before getting a home computer. It was in a writing-advice book, and it wasn’t qualified. What I mean is, the writer of the book didn’t explain what it could mean—because there are different interpretations which can be made from this statement—they only put in “write what you know.”
And I thought, “I write fantasy and science fiction. I can’t know most of what I put in my books.”
Most of the time, I did my best to ignore this bit of advice, but it always came back. When it did, it invariably interrupted my writing. It brought to me the first real doubt I had in my writing. It was hell.
Over the years, and particularly once I found Forward Motion for Writers, I came across various other interpretations of “Write what you know.” I’ve discovered there are probably as many interpretations of “write what you know” as there are writers, but my favorite interpretation is to write what I know on an emotional level.
This affects my writing. On the stories I really care about, I develop complicated relationships for the characters. I delve into their psyche. Not to say other writers don’t, simply that I do it to a depth I don’t see (or recognize often) in others’ writing. It’s part of the reason why Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald-Mage trilogy is still my absolute favorite of all time. In all three of those books, the MC is affected by his circumstances and relationships with other people much more deeply than her other characters seem to be to me.
And I go deeper than that. Nearly all of my characters have some sort of dramatic emotional or psychological upset over the course of their stories. I’m writing what I know in these books, and I know deep, disturbing emotional/psychological turmoil. It’s kind of difficult not to when you’re mentally ill. No matter my determination to remain calm and confident and patient, my mental illness doesn’t permit me that ability. I experience deep despairs over the most shallow things. There are times when the least provocation causes me to fly into a rage. Sometimes I weep for no apparent reason and it takes me days to identify what the trigger was. And, always, always, when I feel something, whether it be positive or negative, I feel it deeply.
I try to put that depth into my characters’ lives and emotions. It’s the best I can do to make the story as good as it can possibly be. To me, if my characters aren’t deeply emotionally affected by the events in their lives, I haven’t written the story well enough.
So my characters aren’t all going to be emotionally stable. Kaj in Fairy-Touched isn’t. Not all my characters are going to come from happy home lives. Gildas, in my July Novel Writing Month WIP this year, Where There’s Always Sunlight doesn’t. And even my most even-keeled character, Doéna from Stirrings, has a breakdown due to the stress of his situation.
“Write what you know” still hits me the wrong way sometimes, but by keeping in mind the knowledge I have which fascinates me when I put it into stories, I’m able to avoid the depression this advice gives me.