Write what you know. A well know axiom for writers. But is it really a rule? Is it good advice? What the heck does it mean?
I can’t tell you how many times I have scratched my head thinking, okay, what do I know? I know about police work, having had a career in law enforcement. I know about horses, having loved and worked with them all my life. I apparently know about a few other things, as I give out a lot of advice. Or perhaps, as my mother often said, I just like to generalize without specific knowledge.
But try as I might, I can’t seem to want to write a book about those topics . . . not yet anyway. And maybe that’s a good thing, because I don’t think that write what you know means limiting your writing to topics or places or people you literally already know about. If it does, then a woman should never write from a man’s perspective; a person living in Alabama should never write about a setting in New York; and a fantasy writer should just stop.
I certainly did not know anything much about early religion or Turkey or Asperger’s when I got a bug to write a novel about Noah’s wife. I wanted to write the story, not as a religious retelling, but one that I, as a humanist, could belief might have really happened. It took four years to bring that story to life and almost as many for my newly released historical novel, ANGELS AT THE GATE (the story of Lot’s wife). The research involved did help me “know” about the land, the culture, and the archeological and geological evidence that existed in my time periods and locations. Even trips to Turkey and Israel, although enriching, can’t substitute for being there at the time and experiencing what my characters experienced. But then, of course, if I lived in the time of NOAH’S WIFE or ANGELS AT THE GATE, I would be several thousand years old. Not really practical.
I believe you should do whatever research is required to honor your pact as a writer with your reader and establish authority in your writing. Getting details “right” is important, but I don’t believe in limiting your imagination or subject matter. Actually, I think write what you know is about something else.
All writers are experts about one thing—what it is like from the inside to be a human being, specifically, to be you. Write what you know means drawing upon that experience. You may have never been raped or divorced or thrown over a cliff (and hopefully not), but you know fear, an aching heart, and the terror of falling. You know it. When your characters feel something or think something, you must draw from that well of knowledge inside you, dig for it if you need to. It is about opening yourself to yourself.
As a police officer I saw things and spoke to people who had been through terribly traumatic situations. I tried to empathize with them, but unless their pain connected in some way to a pain I could understand, I didn’t really feel it. When your characters cry, will it affect your readers? It will if they connect with the reader’s sorrow or pain in some remembered or imagined way. You don’t have to lose your mother to imagine that pain in a very personal way, and so that is almost a universal emotional connection (unless you hated your mother.) As a writer, you can remember or imagine what it was or would be like (for you) to experience something your characters experience. And that is when the magic happens, and you are writing what you know.
T.K. Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” When she retired as a captain, she took on Birmingham’s business improvement district (CAP) as the executive director. Both careers provide fodder for her writing, which has garnered several awards, including “Book of the Year for Historical Fiction” (ForeWord Reviews) for her debut novel Noah’s Wife. Her first non-fiction book, Last Chance for Justice, was featured on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list. Her new historical novel about the story of Lot’s wife is Angels at the Gate. She loves traveling, especially to research her novels, and speaking about her books and life lessons. She writes at her mountaintop home, often with two dogs and a cat vying for her lap.