What “Write What You Know” Really Means

I have a confession. I love video games. Can’t explain why. Maybe it’s the dopamine. Don’t really care. I enjoy them, and depending on the game, find them relaxing.

They’ve also taught me something about life. In the world of video games, that something is called grinding.

“In video games, grinding is performing repetitive tasks, usually for a gameplay advantage or loot but in some cases for purely aesthetic or cosmetic benefits.” — Wikipedia

Repetitive tasks. As in, not dramatic or particularly interesting. Hmmm…that sounds so familiar, doesn’t it?

Like it, or not, grinding is what most of us do for most of our lives. It’s normal, usually necessary, and part of life if you’re having a pretty good one. On the action side of human experience, it’s what we know.

Typical grinding does not make for good fiction.

In the ’90s, I volunteered as a judge for an up-and-coming script contest called Blue Cat. It’s a big deal now, but back then, it was just getting started. I read a script by a new writer that told the story of four college guys grinding through their average lives. The first twenty pages, which represents twenty minutes of screen time, were set in a bar where they sat around drinking pitchers of beer and talking about average college life.

As far as active narrative goes, unless these college guys cheated on their social studies final using notes the professor’s daughter sold them, and now they’re freaked out because she’s pissed that one of them got her pregnant, but they all secretly slept with her, and….

Well, readers are falling asleep.

I hope this writer eventually went on to make his writing dreams a reality, but at this beginning point, it was a battle to get through those one-hundred pages. It also taught me something that turned my own career around.

Writing what you know isn’t necessarily about writing the action of life which you’ve experienced. It means writing what you know about being human.

And I bet you have a lot of experience with that.

Because to be human means knowing grief and joy, anger and love, fear, duty, cowardice, and kindness. It means sometimes acting with cruelty and having others do the same to you. And with growth, it means forgiving.

At its core, being human is to get beat down and give up, and then push yourself back to your feet to continue on. It’s complex, painful, triumphant, and about relationships. With others and yourself.

To fully engage readers, writing of any kind must be about the human experience. This is what bonds readers to a story. This is what makes them identify with your characters as they take the active narrative journey with them.

What you know about being human makes your readers care about your characters and love your books. No matter what you’re writing. No matter whether the action is quiet or epic.

All successful authors do this.

For example, I’m confident you’ve never time traveled to 18th century Scotland from the 1940s. But most of us, if not all, have fallen in love, experienced times when we didn’t fit in, and have felt lost, frightened, and desperate to return to safer ground. (Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon).

Many people live in New Jersey near Newark. A lot of us have a quirky family member or two, troublesome love lives, and eat more junk food than we should. Few (or dare I say, none), are average New Jersey 30-something women solving murders as snarky amateur bounty hunters. (The Stephanie Plum series, by Janet Evanovich).

Writing what you know isn’t about narrating the details of life’s daily grind. Writing what you know means creating characters who are relatable because they reflect what it means to be human.

Which they then do while struggling through experiences more interesting than ours.

See you on the bestsellers list.

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