Drawing from Experience When Writing
We’ve all heard the old adage: “Write what you know.” Mark Twain said this, so it must be good advice, right? You’re pulling things out of your brain (hopefully not somewhere else) and putting them onto the page, so you must have to know something to write it! Well, in the internet age everybody gets to voice their opinion, and the new trend seems to be “write what you love.”
Well, that makes sense too! Most likely any author is writing for the love of the craft. There are easier, less time consuming, and less emotionally devastating pursuits to explore. We must love what we’re doing, else why would we do it? I’m sure Mark Twain loved writing, or I imagine he would have dealt cards at a poker table on some ferryboat steaming down the Mississippi River instead.
So, which is it? Write what you know, or write what you love?
Why can’t it be both?
I’m going to throw out another idiom: “Have your cake and eat it too.” This idiom essentially says you can’t have the best of both worlds. Once you’ve eaten your cake, it’s gone; so you no longer have it. Still, a literal interpretation of the idiom makes little sense. With all due respect to Thomas, Duke of Norfolk (who is credited with originating the phrase in 1538); this may be the most ridiculous thing to spring forth from the English language.
You can’t eat cake if you don’t have cake. And there’s no point in having cake if you can’t eat it. If I have cake, you can be damn sure I’m going to eat it, too!
So, I posit that one should write what you know, and love it too.
How does one do this? Let’s take a few steps back and look at the original adage: “Write what you know.” What exactly does that mean? Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemmons, was raised in Missouri and worked at one point as a pilot of a riverboat on the Mississippi. When you think back to his seminal works The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, what comes to mind? The deep South, the Mississippi River, and probably a riverboat or two. Mark Twain wrote what he knew. He set his stories in the region where he grew up and populated them with elements he was familiar with. “Write what you know” simply means that one should draw upon their own personal knowledge and experiences to craft their stories. (This should not be limited to firsthand experiences, however. I write a lot of historically inspired fiction. I wasn’t there, but I’m a history nerd, so it is still something I know.)
“Write what you love” should be an easy one to digest, but it can get complicated as well. Maybe more so than the former statement. We all love a lot of things. You probably love your mom, but are you just going to write a biography about her? You love your dog Kevin, but is there going to be a dog named Kevin in every book you write? Unless you’re a monster, you love pizza; but is every other scene in your book going to involve pizza?
What if we’re approaching that from the wrong angle? What if it means one should write the kind of story they love to read? Aha! Now we’re on to something! I love the works of Fritz Lieber, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft—just to name a few—so a lot of my work reflects this. The Ravencrest Chronicles are inspired by the works of Lieber and an old anthology series called Thieves’ World. Blood of the Desert is inspired by the stories of Conan written by Howard. Parting the Veil is inspired by Lovecraft, the Indiana Jones films, history, and mythology. That’s writing what you love, right? But, I have knowledge of those things, so am I not also writing what I know?
Did I have my cake and eat it too?
Admittedly, those are fairly straightforward examples. Also, they only address one side of the coin. What about your mom, Kevin, and pizza? What about your own experiences as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi? How do you incorporate what you love from life, what you know from life, and what you love from literature?
In one of my novels, What Once Was Home, I managed to do this. Not only did I have my cake and eat it too, I had all the cakes and ate them all.
Let’s start with the literary aspect. Two of my favorite genres—in books, film, and gaming—are post-apocalyptic science fiction and military science fiction. Some examples would include the Posleen War Saga by John Ringo (aka The Legacy of the Aldenata), The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (and the film adaptation), Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, the Mad Max films, and the Fallout series of video games. Since What One Was Home is a post-apocalyptic military science fiction novel, it’s clear that I wrote what I love from a literary standpoint.
What about Kevin? Well, there’s several things that I love in life that I drew from for the book. The breathtaking countryside of western North Carolina is the main setting, my love for my late father and what he taught me about life are major themes that Jace experiences, and how much I absolutely thrive on coffee is even represented in the book, among other things.
In writing What Once Was Home, I wrote the type of story I love to read with elements that I love from my life either as major components or sprinkled throughout. And those latter elements—the mountains of North Carolina, my dad, and coffee—are all things I have personally experienced. I wrote what I knew, and loved it too.
Now, you don’t have to love everything you put into your book. You may have professional experience in configuring an administrative server for a corporate intranet. Now, you might love this, or it might just be a job. Still, you know it. Perhaps what you really love is a star spanning space opera. Well, every spaceship is going to need an I.T. guy, right? You can write what you love, and pull from elements of what you know to bring that to life.
This brings up my final piece of advice. In What Once Was Home, it was easy to incorporate what I know and what I love because it is set in the real world in the near future. But what if your story is set in a secondary fantasy world or the far reaches of space? How would you incorporate those elements there?
Go outside and look around. What do you see? Rolling hills, vast plains, a scorching desert, or a thriving urban environment? You can use that. Use your personal experiences to fill in the details of a fictional place. Should I write a fantasy story with forested mountains, the time I spent in western North Carolina will be invaluable. If you find your characters traversing the Desert of Gorlem in your fantasy world, and you live in the Californian Mojave, you know what it’s like.
This can go beyond a sense of place, though. If your adventurers stop off in a tavern for a roast chicken and mug of ale, chances are you can describe every tiny detail of the experience from your own past. And if you love chicken and ale, all the better!
No matter your genre, setting, plot, or themes; there’s bound to be something from your own life experience that you can draw upon to inform your writing. Pay attention as you live life, and learn all you can from it. Fall in love with coffee, the mountains, and a dog named Kevin. Gather all of this up when you sit down to write, and let it pour out onto the page.
Write what you know, and love it too!