I confess, as a freelance journalist and non-fiction freelance writer, if I followed the “write what you know” rule of writing, I would have written very little. Because I know very little. I had to bend the rule to “write what you learn.” I would then interview people to learn about all sides of particular issues for news articles, or a company’s take on an issue when I went corporate with my writing, and then I would write what I had learned from my interviews.
When I retired several years ago, not because I wanted to retire but because of my multiple sclerosis (MS) and New Daily Persistent Headache (NDPH), I still wanted to write. Hell, I had been writing professionally for almost 40 years. My head might hurt and I might need a cane to walk, but my fingers still worked. My condition just wouldn’t allow me to absorb and regurgitated information from third parties. I mean if you fall asleep during an interview or file your work exceptionally late because of your conditions, you are not going to last long in the world of freelance writing.
It was then that I discovered the meaning of the “write what you know” maxim. I know MS and I know headaches. That knowledge became the motivation for my book “Chronic: A Sick Novel”. In the novel, four people with various ailments MS, Parkinson’s disease, cancer and wheelchair-bound— move in together and forge a life for themselves. For the record, I know people with Parkinson’s, cancer and who are wheelchair-bound.
The main character is named Paul. Like me, he was a freelance writer, speaker and trainer. Like me, he has MS. But, honest, he is not me. Chronic is, after all, a work of fiction. However, it starts with what I know about various conditions and the impact that they have on people. In addition, even though there is much (almost everything) that is made up in Chronic, there is an essential emotional truth to the novel. As the writer, there was no escaping the emotional truth of my condition.
Now for the record, I am not saying that everybody who writes fiction must write what they know. Heck, if that was the case, we would have no science fiction or fantasy. I am saying, though, that there is nothing at all wrong with building what you write— your plot, the characters you create and what they experience—on your emotional truth. Yes, you can go beyond that, way beyond it in fact, but I suggest that it is a solid place to start. Then as your plot develops and as you get to know your characters, you give them their own back story and their own emotional truths.
In essence, what you do is write what you know and write what you learn based on your knowledge.
If you want to write fiction and are having difficulty getting started, try to write what you know, and then build on it. I for one think it makes for a more interesting writing process and a more creative and engaging book.
Paul Lima is the author of over 20 non-fiction books on various aspects of writing, as well as three
works of fiction. You can read more about Paul and his books at paullima.com.