If you’ve read any books or blogs about writing sooner or later you’re going to come across the phrase Write about what you know. At first I didn’t appreciate this good advice and I tried to write about things I enjoyed when reading other books. I love Clancy-esque action thrillers so I immediately set about writing my own. I got ten pages into my story about genetically enhanced super ninjas fighting a team of world class snipers before it ground to a halt. The problem was that I didn’t know anything about genetics, martial arts, rifles or military tactics. When I re-read my story it was one long fight scene, and as soon as the fighting stopped so did my new world. I learned my lesson the hard way.
So we’ve established that writing about what you know is good advice, but now I’d like to challenge it. The problem I have with it is that it restricts your creativity at a time when an entire world is waiting to be created. The joy of writing is that your characters can literally be anyone, anywhere, doing the most amazing things imaginable. If you focus your efforts on the few topics you consider yourself an expert in there’s a good chance you’re going to run out of stories to tell pretty quickly. I’d therefore argue it’s actually more important to know about what you write.
Lets say I feel like writing a story about tornadoes. The problem is, I don’t know much about tornadoes. If I followed the mantra of write about what you know I should just stop right there and leave the tornado stories to meteorologists and professional storm chasers. I could do that, but I have a really great idea for a story that involves tornadoes, so now what? Research of course. If I feel strongly that my story has legs I’ll go straight to Wikipedia, youtube, the library, old movies, anywhere else I can learn more about what I would like to write about. My goal isn’t to become a world leading expert, just to learn enough to give my story a tinge of authenticity. For example did you know tornadoes can be invisible until they touch the ground? Me neither, but now that I have learned that fact I can incorporate it into my story, creating a surprise encounter for my hero that’s based in reality.
Obviously going off and studying is going to take time away from writing, and if you write about what you know that’s time you aren’t going to have to spend. In the end it will come down to a trade off, do you want to invest the time to tell a story outside your comfort zone that may actually be a more interesting story?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to research super ninjas!