“Write what you know.” This is an easy concept if you are a non-fiction writer, writing about yourself, or maybe some historical person that you know a lot about. But for fiction writers these words might seem to not necessarily apply to us. After all, who of us have ever been to a city of elves or ever taken up swords to fight in a battle? (Geez, do I wish.)
But this isn’t true. These words apply to us, too, perhaps even more than they apply to a non-fiction writer. We must write to our strengths and our knowledge. If you write about what you know it gives you a chance to bring something to the table that no one else can replicate.
Case in point: The Martian. Whether you have read the book or watched the movie, you should know the premise. A man gets left behind on Mars after his crewmates thought he was dead. Obviously no one has been to Mars, least of all the author Andy Weir. But guess what – the science checks out, at least most of it, according to known knowledge (check out this video for proof). Weir wrote to what he knew. I could never write something like this. I don’t have the knowledge of that sort of science. Whether he already knew it or he did that sort of determined research, it was something he understood and the concepts were things that he knew.
Impressive, sir! Even the parts that maybe aren’t scientifically accurate, Weir still knew enough to be able to fake it and pull the wool over our eyes. (Who cares about the wind – to me this was a minor plot point anyways. SOMETHING got Mark Watney stranded. It’s the science of how he survived and got back that I admired.)
Monsters don’t exist (at least none that have been proven) but I know a lot about them. I know the stories and the mythologies. I enjoy studying them. I’ve read Greek and Roman mythologies, Norse mythologies, Irish mythologies, to list a few. It’s this knowledge that prompted me to start writing my current work The Mana Runner, where my fourteen year old is forced to enter the territories of various monsters. It gives me a chance to mix the mythologies that I know and love and create a world that few could.
And have you ever just picked up one of those books about the Natural History of Dragons. The book is so outrageous detailed about the anatomy of a dragon that it can make you believe that someone has performed an autopsy on one of these mythical beasts. I guarantee you that whoever put the book together had advance knowledge on animal anatomy that s/he was able to convert and use to put together that book.
The point is, fiction writers, don’t sell yourself short. Maybe you have never been in a sword fight. But do you know about swords? I know several types of blades over several different cultures (when I’m not studying monsters or mythologies, I happen to be a big sword-buff, haha). Maybe there’s some sort of story you could put together using that knowledge. “The search for the 100 blades.” (I swear this is not a reference to my favorite game Muramasa… almost).
And even if you have never met an elf, you can easily read stories that were written in history to give yourself a nodding respect to the old stories that you can use to create your own story. Sarah J Maas pulls this off beautifully with Court of Thorns and Roses and fairies. Even if the fairies were not the same from those pulled out of old mythos, she uses the old names and pulls in the cauldron lore. Fabulous and elegant. I might not have liked the story, but I respect the level of knowledge and/or research that she poured into the writing.