“Write what you know!” Is the simple advice every author receives at least once (usually about 87 times though) in their lives. I’ve always thought this was questionable. “If you only write what you know, how will you challenge yourself? How will you learn?” Plus I didn’t know anything when I started writing. I had few experiences to fall back on and none that I wanted to write about. In retrospect I thought that this advice meant that because what I knew was what it was like growing up in a household with five siblings and going to church whenever the doors were open, that’s all I was allowed to write about.
Screw that because I wanted to write about dragons.
So I ignored this advice for a long time while at the same time, following it. I didn’t follow it to the letter in my dutiful subconscious but I followed it without realizing I was following it. Because I wrote what I knew: dragons and fantasy. Because that’s what I read growing up. I was writing what I knew without thinking I was. I remember being very inspired by Eragon. It’s not a book I like now but when I was a kid, that was my workshop. It inspired my first longer work. I still have it, though it’s not typed so I don’t have a word count. It’s over 60 pages handwritten (and by handwritten I mean really terrible 11 year old me handwriting).
It wasn’t until halfway through high school when I was going through my Creative Writing classes that I heard the advice again. I still hated that advice. So I purposely tried to write things that I didn’t know anything about. It worked out alright because, again, I was still writing what I knew. Or I was able to easily research the details I didn’t know off the top of my head. I wrote about things like mental illness and serial killers. I learned a lot while writing about them. I was writing what I knew but also what I didn’t. I had to do research. *gasp* That seems to scare young authors. Be not afraid, a lot of the time research is simply Googling a few small things. Unless you’re trying to write about something you do, literally know nothing about.
I think that better advice to give budding young authors is “Write what you enjoy.” That’s much more reasonable. Because if you write what you enjoy then usually you also know a few things about it. If you enjoy high-fantasy then you’ve probably already read many and have looked up some lore on your favorite creatures. If you enjoy detective novels then you’ve probably already read many and have a good idea how they work (I do not read anything like that but I watch crime dramas so that’s probably why I get ideas from time to time).
“Write what you enjoy” creates a more passionate relationship between the author and their work. Writing what you KNOW is boring. I’ve tried it because I thought I was supposed to. It did not last long. Writing what you enjoy is about loving your work and caring about it. It also leaves room for change and improvement. If I used to write detective novels but now I’ve grown to love fantasy (sorry I keep using these two genres as examples, I thought they were good) then I can transition to writing fantasy without feeling held back by my limited knowledge of fantasy novels.
I write what I know and enjoy. I don’t get scared away from ideas that I don’t know everything about. But I use those ideas a little more cautiously. I’ve had ideas for murder mystery stories and epic war tales that take place in other countries. Do I write these? Nope. Not only would those stories take months of research that would, let’s face it, absolutely bore me, but because even though those ideas come to me, they aren’t what I enjoy. I know what I like. I try new things from time to time, it’s good to challenge yourself with a completely different genre from time to time, and sometimes great things come from those experiences. Sometimes nothing comes from them.
If you don’t enjoy what you’re writing then your readers probably won’t enjoy it either. So when people tell you to write what you know, take it with a grain of salt. What what you want to write. Write what you enjoy.