I wrapped up my last blog post with the promise of a shocking revelation from David L. Robbins’ “Redline your Writing” panel at the 2011 Write-Brained Network Writing Workshop. You might want to sit down for this one.
Are you ready for it? Are you sure? Here goes…
“Write what you know” is a lie.
Yeah, I didn’t see that one coming, either. Along with “show, don’t tell,” I’ve been hearing “write what you know” almost as long as I’ve been a writer. It’s one of those truisms of writing. When you write about the things you really know and understand, it’s easier for you to put them on the page convincingly.
But although David agreed that showing instead of telling is important for writing interesting stories that people will want to read, he said that “write what you know” is wrong.
Why? As David explained — and he’s 100% right here — what each of us knows best is ourselves. Unfortunately, most of us don’t live particularly interesting lives. I know I don’t. I spend most of my days at home with my cats, scribbling words on paper. And, honestly, nobody wants to read about that.
Instead, David says to write about what you love. Find something you’re excited about, that you can’t wait to explore, and write about that.
I’d never thought about it — as I said, I’ve had “write what you know” preached to me for years — but David’s right. I’m forever telling people that one of my favorite parts of my job is getting to learn new things. Pocketwatches, trains, London’s livery companies, even spiders (which I’m terrified of). I get lost for days researching them. It’s those stories that I enjoy writing the most. I honestly believe that shows in the story, too. I like what I’m doing more, so I can see the world of the story more clearly and spend more time getting it right.
A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about a trip she and her husband were planning to a bone church in a little town outside Prague. I knew nothing about Prague and had never even heard of ossuaries. But I found the idea fascinating. I’d just started a new short story about three men traveling on a train. As soon as I saw pictures of the bone sculptures in the Sedlec ossuary, I knew that’s where they had to go. I spent weeks learning everything I could about Sedlec, the ossuary, and the bone sculptures in it. Then I wrote a short story called “Kostnice Mordiggian.”
It was the first story I ever published.