Write about what you know

“Write about what you know”

You hear this all the time. The theory is that if you pull stories from your own life and use settings, occupations, and situations that you are familiar with, then your writing will ring true. Writing about what you know will also help to avoid errors like using words that Brits don’t use when a character is supposed to be British, or calling a street “Maple Street” when it should be “Maple Avenue” for a city that you visited once. But writing about what I know is something that I rarely do except in an indirect manner. I rarely use things that actually happened to me or to someone close to me. At most I draw on fragments. I do it this way because of my reasons for writing.

I don’t write fiction to write. I write fiction because it’s an opportunity for me to experience things that I don’t know, or can’t experience, or don’t feel on a frequent enough basis. For example many writers always write from the perspective of the gender that they are. I write from the perspective of either gender. I was only born with one gender and writing gives me a chance to view the world from the other. Or, I am married and have been for a while. I’ve experienced the nervousness of being single and meeting someone, but it’s been years since I experienced that first hand and I don’t expect to experience that again in the foreseeable future. Writing fiction allows me to experience that again, anew, as a different person, with a different person than my spouse. And without the effort and cost of an affair or divorce.

Reading fiction allows me to experience new things or to see the world in new ways. When I watch movies I can do the same. But when I write fiction I experience things much closer than I do when I’m watching a movie or reading a book. When I write I have to be right in there like a method actor — researching, pondering, then putting on each character’s skin and being them. I get to be the middle aged used car dealership owner who likes being dominated by his young office clerk. I get to be the young woman from the suburbs who takes a job in the big city and tries to find her way, or the inexperienced submissive who meets her first real Dom, or the guy who gets caught watching porn movies when the woman from the strata council barges in on him.

And it’s better than acting ’cause I get to play any role that I want. I can determine my own roles. The down side to this is that I also have to play the roles of the characters that I don’t like. I have to spend time inside the cerebral narcissist, the somatic narcissist, and the self-absorbed artist. I get to direct as well. I get to determine how things are played out. If I don’t like the way that things are going, I can put some effort into redirecting everything; my “life” and everyone else’s as well. I can make a happier ending, or a more dangerous situation, or make a scene more vague and confusing.

Another factor: Over the years I have written a lot but the writing is non-fiction. Most of this has been some type of instructional material. Either I’m trying to explain something that I know well or I’m writing to think my way through material to help me to learn. This last situation is similar to being in university where you are assigned a range of topics, you pick one, you research it or do your own analysis, and then you write a paper. My characters and situations for my fiction evolve in a similar manner. I find an interesting character or situation, I research background information, and then I think about how things fit together. The biggest difference for me between instructional or research writing compared with fiction writing is all the additional time that I spend analyzing, postulating, testing, and developing the rest of the characters, situations, and relationships that’s required for writing fiction. I also abandon a lot more fiction ideas than non-fiction ideas. And I get a much stronger reaction, a gut level, emotional kicker kind of reaction, when I write or read my fiction than I do with non-fiction.

Of course there are elements of me and my life in every character and every scene that I write. If there weren’t, I wouldn’t understand them well enough to be able to write them.

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