During my promo for my latest prehistoric fiction, Laws of Nature. one of my wonderful hosts posted this article I wrote about one of those truisms in writing that every writer-in-training learns from day one. In case you missed it, here’s a revisit:
Mark Twain started it when he said, “Write what you know.” From then on, writers take that as gospel. Dig deep. Scratch out what you feel/think/are passionate about and bleed it onto the page. As new writers it’s one of three truths pounded into us–Show don’t tell, Murder your babies, and Write what you know.
No one ponders the truth that fiction writers make stuff up. Most authors haven’t seen London blow up though thriller writers postulate it all the time. How about a massive gorilla atop the Empire State Building? Fantasy writers make up whole worlds and species as do SciFi aficionados. Did they not get the memo? What about Hannibal Lector, cutting people’s heads open to eat their living brain? Or Criminal Minds‘ psycho killers? I’d rather drink Drano than think they’re real.
In a rational literary world, making stuff up makes sense. It’s called ‘fiction’, which Webster defines as ‘not real’ (I’ve abbreviated, but you get the idea). How does that jive with ‘Write what you know’? What Mark Twain should have said–maybe meant to say–was ‘Lie creatively. Do your research, weave with zest, be believable, and write’. But that’s got all the literary charisma of a dirty needle.
Maybe he meant it as a suggestion, Write what you know. Or not. Your choice.
I confess, I tried to ‘write what I know’. Then I fell in love with prehistoric fiction which is impossible to know. I researched the world long before records were kept and wrote that story, making sure to only write what I knew to be true. It was boring. No one cared because it had no power, passion, or pull.
That’s when the truth hit me: Great authors don’t write what they know. They convince readers to ‘willingly suspend their disbelief’ and not care if it’s not true.
Today, thirty years and counting into my writing journey, I understand: The connotative definition of ‘write what you know’ is completely different from the denotative one, and that’s good. Since realizing that, I’ve written almost a million words that have no basis in my life, history, or reality.
How about you?
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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular prehistoric fiction saga, Man vs. Nature which explores seminal events in man’s evolution one trilogy at a time. She is also the author of the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers and Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. Her non-fiction includes over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, reviews as an Amazon Vine Voice, a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Natural Selection, Spring 2022.