One of the most common pieces of advice writers hear early on is to write what you know. Different writers react differently to this advice when they first hear it. For many, the initial reaction is negative. This is especially the case with people interested in writing a fantasy novel. After all, by definition you’re writing about things nobody can truly know because at its core fantasy is about the impossible. It really begs the question – should you write what you know in your fantasy novel? Let’s find out!
Is Write What You Know Bad Advice?
The widely-heard advice to write what you know is something of a mystery as far as its origins. Some attribute it to Ernest Hemmingway and others to Mark Twain, but it was around before either of them. It’s one of those sayings that has been around for so long that no one has any idea where it really came from. You do have to love poet Howard Nemerov’s version of it, though: Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time. Funny, right? But his sarcastic take on the advice has a point in it as well – if the advice is taken literally, doesn’t it become a kind of unnecessary constraint on your imagination? And isn’t your imagination the key to writing a fantasy novel? In the big picture we know so little. The whole point of speculative fiction, the kind of fiction under which fantasy falls, is to speculate beyond what we know.
Now, don’t get me wrong. If you’re a journalist or an investigative reporter, please take the advice at face value – especially if you’re reporting on someone’s alleged wrongdoing. In that context, you definitely want to limit yourself to what you know – the facts that can be proven and corroborated with real evidence.
But if you’re writing a fantasy novel, why in the world would you limit yourself to only write what you know? From this perspective it sounds like the worst advice possible! What if you’re young and just getting started with your writing? You might feel like you don’t know much of anything. If you stuck with the advice to write what you know, you might find yourself writing very little, and what you do write won’t be very interesting to read.
Interpreting the Most Common Advice Given to Writers
Maybe it’s not so much that it’s bad advice but just misunderstood. Young writers are especially susceptible to interpreting the advice to mean they should only write about things that have actually happened to them. If you haven’t led an especially interesting life, no one’s going to want to read this, except for maybe your mother. I think it’s safe to say that this is not what is meant by the write what you know advice.
One of the first things you should realize is that you probably know a heck of a lot more than you think. After all, you are a human being who has had all kinds of experiences and emotions, right? What you know about the emotions you have felt is absolutely foundational to writing of any kind, including a fantasy novel. Here’s how author Nathan Englander puts it:
“…I think what’s behind ‘write what you know’ is emotion. Like, have you known happiness? Have you ever been truly sad? Have you ever longed for something? And that’s the point…if you have felt that deep longing, that can also be a deep longing for a lost love or for liberation of your country, or to reach Mars. That’s the idea: if you’ve known longing, then you can write longing. And that’s the knowing behind ‘write what you know.’”
You want to bring emotional depth to your characters, and you have no doubt felt a full range of emotions, so you do know about them. Use that kind of knowing in your writing! However, you also needn’t limit yourself emotionally. If you have an ounce of empathy imagination, you can surely imagine what it might feel like to suffer a great loss, even if you have never personally experienced one.
But there are other ways to come to know things as well. Author Zoë Heller has a refreshing take on this:
“In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources. The problem with my highwayman story, it seems safe to say, was that I had drawn on none of them. It didn’t necessarily matter that I had never robbed a stagecoach. But it did matter that I had not troubled myself to find out, or even partially imagine, anything about what robbing a stagecoach might entail.”
Defending the Write What You Know Advice
Another way that writing what you know can help you with your fantasy novel is making all of your different characters more believable. You’ve known a wide range of people in real life, and it can be very helpful to draw on those when adding details to the characters you’re writing. If one of the characters in your book is a jerk, think about the jerks you have known and use it to make your character all the more relatable.
And let’s return for a moment to imagination. Your fantasy novel requires a ton of imagination. You have to imagine what it might be like to do, see, and experience things that are way outside the scope of what you know. Go for it! Just keep in mind that you also want it to seem as realistic as possible. You want your readers to feel like that’s what it would be like to experience those things.
The biggest takeaway from this article, however, is by reinforcing your own emotions as a foundational aspect to good writing. Here’s how writer Jeff Elkins puts it:
“We may not be genius detectives, or courageous knights, or homeless superheroes, but the emotions we feel are universal and, if we can capture them, can be used as powerful tools to bring our writing to life. I believe this is one way we can write what we know.”
In the final analysis, the only way to answer the question posed by this article (should you write what you know in your fantasy novel?) is not an either/or proposition. The answer is both yes and no. Yes, write what you know to bring in authentic knowledge of your own experiences and emotions as well as what you have observed in others because your fantasy novel depends on this. And no, don’t write about what you know if doing so is going to place any limits on your imagination because your fantasy novel depends on that as well.