Writing what you know is a good place to start when you’re a new writer. It gives you the practice without the torment of coming up with ideas.
But it’s limiting when it comes to writing a book. If all authors wrote only what they know, we’d have a bunch of novels about working a crappy job to pay the bills while cramming in minutes of writing at a time or none at all. And that’s depressing. I don’t want to read it because I’ve lived it.
Somehow though, in spite of my ambitions to explore the unknown in my writing, every story I come up with starts in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Which is such a coincidence because I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere.
It never feels right. Sure, it has a ring of authenticity to it. It’s believable because I know what I’m talking about. But it’s also mundane and too familiar.
Familiarity equals safety in our minds. It also equals routine and boring. I want to write fantasy and adventure and it’s hard to see those things coming out of something I already know.
Throwing caution to the wind, I pick something I know nothing about and start writing. What happens? It falls flat or I struggle until I give up.
It was an endless cycle until I read one simple quote in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius:
“After all, what ‘write what you know’ really means is, write what you know emotionally.”
Emotions are a different story. I know emotions. I have tons of those every day. So I set out again with this new piece of knowledge glowing like a neon sign in my brain.
And the next story started in a small town in the middle of nowhere but now there’s a river close by and a tree house.
I read to escape reality. I write to build my own reality. I don’t want it to mimic real life. I want something new to explore.
Why do I keep falling back on that same old trope?
I looked at all the ideas I’d had and loved and completely dismissed off hand. What were my reasons there?
It’s the same reasons every time. I don’t know enough about that. I’m afraid no one would believe it. I’m afraid I would suck at it. Fear. It always comes back to fear or a lack of self-confidence.
How do we break the cycle and write about something new?
1. Make a List:
Write down everything you do on a daily basis, all of the things you know and are familiar with. Where did you grow up? Where are you from? If you’re like me, include the things that pop up in every story idea you have. This is a list of things you can’t write about. They cannot appear in your story.
2. Revisit Old Ideas:
I have binders, spiral notebooks, loose pieces of paper, tiny notebooks, and an app on my phone that are full of ideas. I like to go through them every now and again for fun or inspiration. Usually nothing comes of it. Sometimes I find an idea and think, why am I not writing this? And, of course, I decide not to pursue it again for the same stupid reasons as last time. Go through yours and write down your reasons for not expanding on an idea. Some of them will be legitimate. Those you can keep disregarding. Others won’t be. You’ll find you don’t have a valid reason. Look closer at those.
3. Feel the Fear:
One of my sister’s favorite quotes is “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” Which is, as I just found out the title of a book by Susan Jeffers. It’s something she’s told me several times over the years when I’ve come to her knowing I needed to make a change or do something and was frozen with fear. I think it’s especially applicable here. Pick the idea you’re most afraid to write and write it. You don’t have to actually write a whole book. Just write a little bit. Try it out and see what happens.
4. Throw In What You Know:
Just a bit. You have to learn to walk before you can run. Adding in a bit of what you know orients you so you don’t feel like you’ve just jumped into a black pit of chaos. Remember, it’s writing what you know emotionally. You can gauge what your reaction might be even in an unfamiliar situation.
Read widely and voraciously. Experiencing different worlds through the eyes of different characters expands what you know. While you’re at it, read anything by Lisa Cron. Seriously, I’ve read more than a dozen books on writing over the years but none of them have made sense to me like her work. She speaks to the intuitive side of story-telling, focusing on what matters. She’s able to simplify what others have confused for me. Just, trust me. Do it.
6. Choose a Question:
What makes you curious? What deep, life altering questions do you ponder late at night when you can’t sleep? These are the things that make for good stories. That’s the purpose of reading stories. What would I do in that situation? What would that be like? Pick one of those. You can answer your own question while you write and, when your book is published, your readers can find themselves contemplating your book late at night when they can’t sleep.
Writing what you don’t know is scary but, ultimately, I think it makes for better writing. You can go slow. Start with that gray area in between. Think of an emotional experience you’ve had and put it in an unfamiliar setting. Create a character that you like and give him or her some traits you don’t have but have always wanted or been afraid of. Writing is exploring. That’s what writers do. We not only entertain but educate. We ask the hard questions. We give people an opportunity to experience something they haven’t before. What could be better than that?