It’s a gate. It’s a place to start, whether you’re describing a character or a place or an action. And you know more than you think.
Especially if you write science fiction or fantasy. Because then you’re free to make up the things you know from whole cloth in a few spots, maybe many. That’s a privilege other genres don’t have like we get in SFFPHM (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror, Magical realism). Other writers might make up a town or something, but their worlds are expected to act totally like the real world.
Settings aside, writing what you know also doesn’t mean every character has to be a writer or a retail person or a middle manager or whatever variety of things it might be that you do with your lifetime. Doesn’t mean all your aliens need to know what it’s like to poop or vomit. Doesn’t mean that your orcs need to be the orcs you know from all those movies with the really short dudes and a jewelry fetish.
Write what you know is great for writing the human bit of your story, though it’s a damn good thing to remember that if you’re writing about a culture or subculture you’re not familiar with, it’s best to consult members of that culture. Unless it’s elves. You’re not going to find any real elves to consult about your fictional ones, I’m afraid. HOWEVER that said if you’re going to base your elves’ culture strongly on the culture of southern Spain, you’d better be familiar with southern Spain in some significant way.
’nuff said. I’ve already harped on that enough and I hope you were listening.
Write what you know means the practical simple things around you, sure. Do use your memories, your pain, your joy, things that happened to you, places and people you’ve met (though tread lightly when writing a person who’s close to you lest ye complicate yer relationship).
Use the things that made you grieve. Use the things that made you weep with joy. You can choose not to reveal that those things came from within yourself if that’s what you want or need to do. Do use your writerly skills to file the serial numbers off them.
Write things you know you can feel. Because feeling (Hemingway would say, did say, bleeding) on the page speaks to readers. It can reach into your readers’ hearts where mere skill can only titillate their minds.
There are plenty of successful authors who do the latter. But the stories that do the former are remembered. They change minds and sometimes lives.
Don’t think it’s easy, though. No author succeeds at that every time. In fact, I think it’s an ideal that is rarely reached.
Do reach for it.
Back in the days when I read more superhero comix, and today when I watch a movie with a flying superhero — especially one with some kind of ranged attack, IRON MAN I’M LOOKING AT YOU — I’m super annoyed when they just happen to fly low enough for an opponent with no ranged attack to grab or hit them.
JUST FLY HIGHER, DUMMY.
“But the plot requires me to get close enough to let my opponent start a thrilling grapple…”
SHUT UP THAT’S LAZY-ASS WRITING.
Same goes for every drama that features a standoff with a gun and the hero stands there holding the gun on the villain as the villain creeps closer and closer until they can just grab the gun. It rarely makes sense. If there’s something about the character holding the gun that makes it make sense, fine. Maybe they’ve just realized that they can’t bring themselves to shoot another human being. Or there’s some overriding reason that shooting and maybe killing the villain would be a terrible idea.
But that’s so seldom the case. More often than not, it’s a contrived situation to up the tension.
Don’t be lazy and write things that don’t make sense. If you want more tension or whatever, and it doesn’t make sense, GO BACK AND WRITE IT DIFFERENTLY SO IT MAKES SENSE.
If the tiger catches the drone, make sure there’s some internal logic to it.
The more I write, the more I find that I prefer to write longhand instead of using the computer. (It’s worth noting that the computer RULES for editing, rewriting, rearranging, and otherwise molding a story into the right shape.)
I always start a story by hand. I scribble notes and write a page or two. Then, up until the last two it three months, I have always switched over to the word processor to type the following 90% of the story.
It’s fast as long as I know where the story is heading. And maybe you see where this is going if you happen to know that I hardly ever write a story outline, and even when I do it’s less than skeletal. More like a stick figure missing a stick or two.
The words are more likely to dry up after I switch to typing the story. I find myself stalling not just on what to type for the next sentence or paragraph, but on what the next scene is and where the plot is going.
Maybe it’s because when typing my fingers can travel as fast as I’m thinking. But writing by hand forces me to fix what’s coming next in my mind as I hurry to write down the words that bridge the gap.
Or maybe that’s not it at all and there’s a different reason baked into my brain.
Either way, lately I’ve been writing by hand more than I’ve been typing as I compose a story. The biggest challenge is deciphering my own handwriting and making sense of all the notes and additions I cram into the left hand column of the evidence pads I love to use. (Think steno pad, but full 8 1/2″ x 11″ size and with the vertical rule one-third of the way from the left instead of down the middle)
(Edit, an hour or so later: composed this with the voice-writing function on my mobile — it didn’t do too bad, but left me a couple of things to clean up. Technology: the solution to and cause of all of our problems, right? Anything that’s still wrong, I blame on my lovable but very loud and distracting little ones. Oh, and I also clarified a couple of things in the third and last paragraphs.)