You Don't Really Know What Writing What You Know Means (Or, We All Know One of Those People)


You know the saying. Write what you know. People do it. People don't do it. People advise it and against it. People debate about it. Well, I'm here to slide my two cents across the table to you, and tell you that what you might perceive as writing what you know isn't necessarily writing what you know.

Oh, and the caption on the poster to the left? It says Anyone is a weapon if you twist them. 

So, today I sat down in my Extension English I lesson to a discussion with director Adam Blaiklock, whose first feature film Caught Inside (It's actually phenomenal. Support him and Australian film and try and catch it wherever you are if it's nearby) I saw a couple weeks ago. Its theme surrounds the concept that we don't want to take responsibility for the monsters we create.

Essentially, this film is about a surfing trip off the coast of Indonesia, where the only law is set by one's skipper, and a group of Australian tourists find themselves faced with a monster they've created. This monster is one of their own - Bull, one of those aggressive jock-types who was always getting egged on by his mates to show off how masculine or awesome he was...We all know a guy like Bull. But the thing is that they push Bull to an extent that when he turns on them, well, they're stuck in the middle of no where on a boat with a psychopath whose mere physicality is more intimidating than any knife onboard.

I mean, oy with the poodles already.

Obviously, a lot of writers don't write about what they've experienced when they write about witches and vampires and time travel and angels and krakens falling in love with post-adolescent young men. I have heard from quite a few writers, especially novices, that because they fall into this fantastical category that they don't need to draw on personal experience.


I am a firm believer that the best stories are those driven by their characters. And it doesn't matter if you have a nine hundred year old Time Lord or an eighty year old necromancer or a homeless teenager who steals the Crabby Patty Formula. People always retain their individuality, their unique stream of consciousness, their perception of what is occurring around them and the effect said occurrences have on them.

Maybe you don't get what I'm hinting at. Alright, so I want you to force a montage in your head. I want you to do it. Just think of as many different sorts of people you have met over the course of your life. Think of their characteristics, their stereotypes, what they did to conform to your idea of them, what they did to surprise you. Just, think.

If you still don't get what I'm hinting at, then look. We all know:

This girl. Everyone has one.
Today is Halloween. If you haven't noticed it before,
you're about to notice it tonight.

We also all know these people:

We recognise these relationships:

Looking at those people, those interactions, surely your mind conjured up visions of people you know, scenarios you've witnessed, experiences you've had. Surely? Well, my friend, that is how you can always, no matter what your genre, write what you know.

Relationships and characters are so important. 


You need for your readers to relate to your characters. That doesn't necessarily mean they need to be envisioning their best friend or their arch nemesis. If you've got an emotionally distant character, maybe they're going to think of that guy that's always at the supermarket checkout or their neighbour.

But what is so sorely lacking in a lot of films and, regrettably, novels nowadays is that the composer doesn't let their audience think. Let them speculate, let them bring their own perceptions about characters and possible situations to the table and let them actually try and figure out what the bloody hell is going on as you are expertly inferring it.

Writing what you know in this sense is giving yourself the means to set your dialogue alight, to make your motives ring true, to let the events which unfold truly spring from your characters. You need to acquaint yourself with your characters to the extent that you could be inviting them over and sitting down to dinner with them to talk about that new sock they've just released at Costco designed especially for quest-length journeys (as in, on a scale of one to Lord of the Rings, how far did you walk today?)

Yes, you heard me.

So, there's the write what you know in terms of research which is more befitting under the latter term anyways, and then there's write what you know which in my opinion stems from experience.

To bring it back to Caught Inside and today's discussion, Adam Blaiklock got the film idea from a surfing trip that he was on, where people's choices and how they reacted to encouragement from their environment shaped their situation. You can literally write what you know, but for a lot of us that would consist of the routine of school, the routine of work, the routine or home or the occasional trip out to a commercial area designed to suck up your money like some sort of metaphorical vacuum cleaner.

And if you did that, well, you know those things on the Vogsphere planet in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which smack you in the face every time you had an idea? Yeah, well, I would strategically place those around your house.

So, I want you to write what you know in terms of character, in terms of people, in terms of your own observations. Have you ever sat down somewhere and just looked at the people and made up backstories or wondered why they were acting a certain way or in a certain place? Well, try and think who people remind you of whenever you have a spare moment. Look at how they move, how they speak, how their faces scrunch and wrinkle in reactions.

Tell me, do you write people you know into your work? Do you like when you can relate back to your own life and experiences? Or do you think that reading is escapism, particularly fantasy, and that our characters should be as fantastical as our settings?  


Emy Shin at: November 1, 2011 at 10:17 AM said...

Totally agree!

Even subconsciously, I believe all writers bring their own life experiences into things they write. Even if the characters are fantastical -- their emotions, their reactions, are often grounded in emotions and reactions we have.

MissUnknown at: November 1, 2011 at 4:38 PM said...

I agree: what we "know" is broader than some might think :)

In regards to your final questions:

I do regard writing/reading as escapism, mostly. However, I don't take that to mean the characters need to be fantastical. They should be realistic and experience-based (but I don't write about people I know. I take bits and pieces of personalities and experiences to use as required to keep the realism but ditch the real)

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