When I researched this rule, it was surprisingly hard to find much of anything beyond “Write What You Know.” It’s on most top ten lists. Writers get lectured in their critique groups to “write what you know” when they try to go outside their comfort zone. So this result is inevitable:
- I can’t write male characters because I’m not a male.
- I can’t write science fiction because I’m not a scientist.
- My character can only be a Human Resources Specialist because that’s my day job.
It all starts with what you can’t do. So it has the boomerang effect of writers either declaring you have to do it or to ignore it altogether. The reality of the advice is more in the middle.
What it Actually Means
While researching this rule, I found not a single definition. Writers talked generally about it, some talked about how much they hated it, but no one talked about what it actually meant. Most of the discussion was surprisingly vague. So I’m going to boil it down to the following:
The foundation of your story starts with subjects you are familiar and confident with. Subjects that only you can and want to write.
What the heck does this mean?!
- Subjects you’re familiar with and confident with.
This part is a surprisingly hard concept to understand. I started writing when I was eight. When I turned eighteen, I wanted to branch out into professional publishing. But what should I write?
That’s where I ran into trouble because all my experience was childhood. I tried to push at those boundaries—but with what? If I tried to imitate the books I was reading, the subjects went way outside my comfort zone. My first book was a crime thriller…but I knew nothing about how the police worked!
That created the second problem. I wanted to write science fiction, but I didn’t have a science background. I wasn’t at all confident I could even pull off a science fiction novel.
The result ends up being writers who do their research by watching movies (always a bad idea) or picking topics that require more research than the book is worth. Or, in my case, not writing books that I really wanted to write.
But I did have three topics that I did know in and out, even with childhood as being my life experience (and no, it wasn’t childhood):
- The place where I lived, Los Angeles. I could have confidently written about that because if I wasn’t familiar with a specific place, I could have easily gone out there and experienced it. I knew the history because it was a required class in school.
- Hollywood. I grew up reading about how films were made and the history of the industry. I might have had to do more research once I started writing the story, but it would have been from the position of filling gaps rather than researching everything.
- Ghosts. I grew up reading my mother’s subscription to Fate Magazine and other ghosts stories. I probably would have enjoyed researching hauntings around Los Angeles.
Could I have done a science fiction novel with one of those topics? Yes! I did ghosts in space, and it focused on later life experience I had: the military.
- Subjects you can and want to write.
This is something that often gets left out. Some writers write what they think will sell, like a writer who comes up with a romance novel and doesn’t read the genre. This pushes you out of your comfort zone, but in the wrong way.
Never compromise what you want to write.
I subscribe to anthology calls to see if there are any topics I want to do. Lately though, the calls have been for dark stories, or on a politically-related topic. I used to write dark because of my Desert Storm experiences, and it’s not a place I want to venture back to. And I’m not one to get up on a soapbox, so even in the anthology topic is something I could write on, I wouldn’t want to do a political story.
But you really have to know yourself and what boundaries you won’t cross.
Busting the Rule
This rule originated as a piece of advice for intermediate and advanced writers. Unfortunately, it got simplified down to one sentence for all these writing lists—and it loses its meaning. Kind of crazy for people with their stock in trade in words.
What you can do
- Identify subjects that you are familiar with that you can use as a foundation for your story. If it’s hard to figure out—it was for me—start with the place you live. Then look at the types of non-fiction books you like to read. Are they on Ancient Egypt? Or the Civil War? How about the medieval era?
- Gain new knowledge.
Visit a local historical site and soak up the information. It doesn’t matter what kind of story you write. There might be a germ of something that you can eventually use in your story. I went to a lecture on Civil War maps. Who knew that over the next ten years, I would use a single piece of information from it in story after story.
Right now, I’m practicing basic navigation in the local parks. That’s something I know I can use in pretty much any story.
But key is that it should be something you’re going to enjoy doing.
- Know what your boundaries are.
That one’s a bit tougher and will probably be developed with more writing over time. Sometimes you’ll want to push a boundary and get out of your comfort zone, which is always a good thing. But that internal compass is going to tell you what’s right for you, and there may be a wide variety of reasons.
I saw one political topic and thought, “Yeah, I could do a science fiction story on that.” I knew I could keep the soapbox out and do a pretty good story.
But I was also pretty sure the editor had a certain image of what they wanted for the anthology and my story would not have fit in. So then, my boundary was that I didn’t want to write a story that had no chance of getting published.
Sure, I could have indie-published it, but the fact that I didn’t exposed that it was a boundary I needed to stay away from.
If you want to read up on this topic, the non-fiction writing books will be a good place to start. Non-fiction writers have to have an expertise before writing non-fiction. Try this book as a start:
- Write Faster, Write Better, by David A.Fryxell.