Hello everyone! I’m writing today from beautiful Moscow. Why am I in Moscow? For the metro stations of course! Well, maybe not – Metro 2033 has put me off public transportation for life, although I do highly recommend it. Both the novel and the video game. But as lovely as Moscow is, I’ve never written about it, because before now, I didn’t know a thing about about this place or the people who live here. And, as you may already know, you should always be careful to “Write What You Know”.
I know that sounds like a pretty restrictive rule but, I promise, it’s not that bad. Once you dig into it, you’ll find it doesn’t really dictate what you can and can’t write about, but rather how much research you need to do before you get stuck in. And if you stick to it, it can really improve your chances of being published too, as I’ll explain a little later on.
Writing what you know is a grey area, and it’s up to you to decide how far you need to go in order to follow the rule. Obviously, if the protagonist of your blockbuster novel is going to be a sales assistant at a supermarket, it makes sense that you would at least talk to a few sales assistants to find out what it’s like to be one. Even better, you could get a part time job and live it for yourself. On the other hand, if you have a minor character who comes from the jungles of deepest Peru, you probably don’t need to book a flight and pack your machete. Some second hand research would be enough – unless you have a deep, burning desire to get five or six vaccinations, of course.
But what about when your topic falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes? I had a problem like this when I was writing a short story for university. The protagonist was a prostitute living in Tokyo, and while I have been fortunate enough to visit Japan, I wasn’t about to become a woman of the night just for the sake of an assignment. My solution was to start off small, watching documentaries and reading news articles. I picked out some topics which I thought would be meaningful to my character and then searched my network for anyone who might have a friend of a friend in the business. Fortunately, I found someone and was able to get some interesting first hand knowledge by interviewing her, without doing anything I might regret in the morning.
I mentioned earlier that writing what you know can give you a leg up in publishing. This is where your own first hand experiences can really come in useful – it’s not just non-fiction which benefits from an expert mind. Naturally, agents and publishers want work that they can trust to be authentic and true to life, especially if it is a rare perspective. So I suggest thinking about what unique experiences you have had in life. For example, did you spend ten years working as an undertaker? Did you grow up in Haida Gwaii? You could consider using these things as inspiration for your writing. Just don’t forget to mention them in your cover letter if you do decide to try for publishing.
Finally, I wanted to mention how this ties into fantasy and paranormal writing. This is something of the opposite problem; if you have created a complex fantasy setting, you are writing something that only you know. That means it’s important to keep in mind that you are writing to an audience that knows nothing and needs everything explained. When you become familiar with your world, it can be easy to forget that your audience don’t know about your villain’s ability to transform into a hamster at will. Make sure you tell them!
That’s all for now and I’m sorry if I’ve been a little jumbled and incoherent today. I can’t tell if it’s the jet-lag that’s distracting me or the occasional howl of the metro trains running under the hotel…