That is the advice that is frequently given to writers yet we often rebel against it. Writing what we don’t know often seems more exciting.
Writing what you know can be more authentic
Classic writer Louisa May Alcott wrote a lot of other material before she wrote her famous Little Women and much of that earlier material remains obscure. Whether she actually wrote as much melodrama as her character Jo we can’t be sure, but we do know that in this book and the others that followed about the same characters she was tapping into something with which she was familiar. That authenticity shone through.
But what about historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction?
Naturally these explore the unknown. We can find out facts for our historical fiction but we aren’t personally familiar with the circumstances in which our ancestors lived. For fantasy and science fiction we have to create new worlds. How do we do that? And are they in the end all that new to us? Surely all of this is actually based on what we know?
What would I or even they do in these circumstances?
So, we create our world and our characters. We put our characters into those worlds and predict how they’ll act. Don’t we base that prediction on how we would act in those circumstances? So we are still coming from a position of knowledge. A type of method acting takes place.
When fantasy and science fiction aren’t
Have you noticed that in fact most fantasy worlds relate to our own? They become symbols for our life and society. They act as glove puppets and anthropomorphic animals do for younger readers. They give us some objectivity about our own world. Science fiction often fails to predict and much of it is an extension of what is happening now. Dystopias too are frequently a reflection of our own society and explore what happens when some aspects of it go unchecked.
Using what you know as a tool to find out about you don’t know
We have several tools at our disposal when we do research for our writing. We can look at memorabilia and the physical world around us. We can repeat experience. But when that fails we can project forward and work out how things will pan out. We do that from the point of what we know.
However, what of the “unhiemlich”?
This the German word for “uncanny”. The “heimlich” is that what belongs to home, the familiar, that with which we are comfortable. But the “unheimlich” is the unknown, what doesn’t belong to our familiar circle. According to our story gurus most stories start with a call to adventure. The hero is invited to step outside of their comfort zone and cross a first threshold. They are forced into the unknown.
Can it be that even here we are writing what we know? We know story shape and we know that even in our daily lives we have to challenge ourselves. We also know the fear that accompanies that. So again we are back to writing what we know.