A common piece of writing advice is ‘write what you know.’ But what I know, I don’t want to write about. Much better to make it up.
I can convince you I have expertise if I display a thin veneer of knowledge. I might persuade you its vast, but it isn’t deep enough to fill a puddle. If I stop talking before you work that out, I won’t make an ass of myself.
Live for a few decades on the planet and you’re expected to accumulate enough knowledge and/or wisdom to fill a book. If only a thin book.
Maybe you’re lucky enough or driven enough to lead one of those ‘interesting’ lives. Enough career changes, relationships, hardships, travel and life-changing moments to turn you into a Legend of Lived Experience. Your wisdom and knowledge overflow to fill several volumes. Good on you.
The rest of us have to fall back on our own meager existence. And research.
Your Game, Your Rules
The next writing advice is ‘write what interests you.’ My second-string job is teaching people to hit each other with swords. So that’s what I write. But it has to be fantasy. Why? Because historical fiction takes a lot of research. I know. I tried. There are far more knowledgeable experts in practically everything than I. That includes hitting people with swords. With angry social media trolls calling out every perceived mistake, it’s far easier to make it all up.
You don’t like Tolkien‘s Middle Earth? Tough: his world, his game, his rules. It’s the saving grace of the fantasy genre. As long as your world building and its rules are consistent, most readers get on board.
That’s how to ‘write what you know.’ Make it up. You can’t tell me I’m wrong. You can hate it and put the book down, but I’m not wrong. This is the joy of fiction; it’s fiction.
No End of Advice
The third advice is ‘write for your ideal reader.’ I’m not sure I have one. So I write for me. Which coincidentally is the fourth piece of advice: ‘write for you.’ There’s no guarantee anyone else is going to like it, so you might as well write what you like.
‘Experts’ will tell you market research is king, queen and ace, if not the whole deck. It’s where the phrase ‘write to market‘ originates. Understand your market, the buyers of that market, the tropes, clichés, mandatory beats, plot points, characters, and structures. Then write a book that neatly fits into that market, while standing out just enough to get noticed in the crowd.
All of which seems contradictory. Fit in, but stand out. Be original, but write to market. Write for an ideal reader; write for yourself. It’s a challenge. Just write what you know. Or make it up.