Write What You Know… Kind Of

by Gurpreet Sihat

I used to hate the writing advice “write what you know” —

Last I checked…

The world hasn’t lost a battle against intelligent machines who have, in turn, turned us into batteries.

An ancient mummy hasn’t come back from the dead with the aim of awakening the Army of Anubis and taking over the world.

Eco-terrorist aliens haven’t waged war, with their leader snapping his fingers and turning half the world’s population to dust. 

English writers write about Indian characters. Asian writers write about African characters. Men write about women. Women write about the Queer community. Adults write about children. Children follow their imagination through its endless depths. 

The point is if you only wrote about what you knew, literature and movies would be… [insert appropriate adjective of your own choice here]. 

— until I realised that I was misunderstanding it.

Ernest Hemingway famously took direct inspiration from his own life. He wrote what he knew in the most basic understanding of the advice. A Farewell to Arms, for example, is a fictionalised account of his experience serving in the Italian campaigns during World War I. Even the characters are loosely based on those around him, with Catherine Barkley based on Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse who looked after Hemingway when he was wounded and hospitalised in Milan. In reality, Hemingway had planned to marry Kurowsky, though eventually returned to America instead. It’s no wonder why the protagonist, Frederic Henry, is left returning to his hotel in the rain alone at the end. 

John Grisham, on the other hand, took his own knowledge and merged it with stories he had heard to create his stories. Grisham practiced criminal law for a decade before hearing the testimony of a twelve-year-old girl who, along with her sister, had been raped, beaten and almost murdered. Wondering what would have happened if her father had murdered her assailants and with the addition of a fictionalised version of himself in the young attorney, Jake Brigance, A Time to Kill was born. Since then, he’s written almost thirty legal thrillers, including the Theodore Boone series for children. 

While both authors are examples of writers who publish fictionalised, autobiographical novels, others take their ‘what you know’ from smaller, more intimate experiences. Take David S. Goyer, for example. While writing Man of Steel, Goyer’s estranged father died and he, himself, had become both a stepfather and a biological father. He realised that Man of Steel isn’t just the story of an alien sent to earth when his home planet was destroyed, but also the story of fathers and sons. For him, it was about relationships and emotion. 

And look at Kate Mosse. Her inspiration for the Languedoc trilogy – LabyrinthSepulchre and Citadel – all tell stories about a single area through time: Carcassonne. Years of dedicated research gave birth to her series. Mosse is not an archaeologist or a Cathar, nor is she living in two centuries at once, but she has curiosity and that, with her love for what she’s learning, is what she writes about. 

The world hasn’t lost a battle against intelligent machines who have turned us into batteries, but how many conquerors have taken over and used those they deem less worthy as slaves? 

An ancient mummy hasn’t come back from the dead to awaken the army of Anubis, but how many terrorists have killed innocents and instilled fear?

An alien hasn’t snapped his fingers and turned half the world’s population to dust, but how many ecowarriors have taken steps to ensure the survival of a planet we’re destroying?

Write what you know doesn’t mean you only have to write about the things you’ve been through or the people you’ve met. It means root what you write in emotions you’ve felt, experiences you’ve been part of and knowledge you have. And that we can all do. 

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