I think this advice was handed to a heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s. Anne or Emily, I’m not sure which. As someone that grew up stuffing their brain full of fairy tales, Lewis, McKinley, Wrede, Tolkien, Heinlein, Koontz and a staggering variety of authors and their speculative fiction – as someone that wanted to join the throng of speculative fiction writers herself – ‘write what you know’ seemed like a bit of advice that could not be taken literally if I wanted to write in my preferred genres.
I understood that it wasn’t even meant to be taken literally. It was meant to discourage a writer from portraying people and circumstances of which the writer knew nothing, which would make those characters and circumstances seem silly to anyone that knew what those circumstances and sorts of people were actually like. That part didn’t feel great, either, though. I was acutely aware I didn’t know much and had very little life experience. I was homeschooled and isolated and much of what I knew of the world had come to me through fiction itself.
I certainly didn’t garner any extraordinary life experiences as the years went on. Religion, gaming, marriage, parenthood, consumption of pop culture – none of it seemed like fodder with which to inform my speculative fiction, and I certainly didn’t feel like writing about those things at book length outside of speculative fiction, either.
Eventually I had a thought, though – I know myself, I know human emotions.* I know what it’s like to feel. I know something of human history now. I know motivations. I know patterns of behavior and likely responses to stimuli. I know what it’s like to be an outlier, observing from the fringes and seeing that how I move through life is not the same way other people move through life. I know what it’s like to yearn for something out of reach. I know what it’s like to have community, and lose it, and find new communities. I know what it’s like to be challenged, to grow, to change. I know what it’s like to be lonely, afraid, sad. I know what it’s like to feel frustrated, angry, vengeful. I know what it’s like to joke and laugh and prank. I know what it’s like to feel love, loyalty and friendship.
And I know how utterly absurd and coincidental and chaotic life can be – and how it can be banal and mediocre and tedious, too – and how strange and fascinating and beautiful and terrifying. I know how our relationships with other people tend to define our lives and are often the source of our greatest joys and our greatest sorrows.
And I can write about that. I can strip down my grandest world building to the people that inhabit that world and write about how they feel existing in that world, the relationships they build, the communities they interact with, the way they relate to the other characters around them, their reaction to circumstances beyond their control, the way they seek to control their circumstances. I can write about love, longing, happiness, grief, embarrassment, hate, fear, determination and seeking and know that I am, indeed, writing what I know.
*Admittedly the way I experience human emotions is not the same way many other people experience human emotions. But it’s close enough.