There were two bits of advice I remember receiving when I first became a columnist, although I don’t recall from whom they came.
One was to write what you know. Write about some of your most intimate experiences, the things that you can’t stop thinking about no matter how hard you try.
The other was that columnists should be like an orchestra, each playing a different instrument, but together making music.
I decided that in that orchestra I was going to play the banjo. I was not a big-city writer. I was a small-town country boy from the South…– “Writing for the Poor and Powerless” by Charles M. Blow
“In My Orchestra of Words” (Sandcastle 17.03)
I played the violin in my middle school and high school orchestra. I had wanted to play the guitar, but that instrument wasn’t an option at school. It didn’t have a place in the band, or the orchestra, or the choir, so I settled for four strings instead of six.
When I consider my role as a musician in an orchestra of words, I somehow always come back to the violin — that sweet voice of my Midwest rearing that takes a fine touch to master. Place your fingers just right, and it can sing. Off by a millimeter, and a tuneless note scratches across the horse hair.
In exploring fantasy, I often experiment with other instruments. I’ll tap on the drums and traverse mountain ranges, or select a woodwind and blow a few sad, simple notes as I stand on the edge of a wind-swept desert on the cusp of blooming.
But that violin song is the strongest voice. My fingers know their place on the neck. I always return to the instrument I know best and let it guide me through deciduous woods and wetlands, lakes and creaks, cornfields and soy, lily ponds and shifting dunes — my Midwest.
Even when I’m exploring castles in the sky, I can still hear the familiar song, and I bring those notes into my story because I know them so well I can play without sheet music.
I know both the sweet notes and cringing ones — how it feels to slip the nose of a kayak into a still lake and push it into the water as my bare feet sink into the soft muck, but also how it feels when the proboscis of a mosquito breaks skin in July, the delayed slap of an open palm on sweaty skin, the silent curse when you realize you killed your assailant, but too late — the damage is done, and you’ll remember your foe’s last bite for several days as the itchy red welt already starts to swell.
All of those details — all of those notes — have a part in the literary orchestra. They stitch senses into the quilt of imagination and reality.
Exploring the Metaphor: What Does “Write What You Know” Really Mean?
Every writer has heard this piece of advice at least once in their life. But if you ask a dozen writers what the phrase “write what you know” really means, you’ll likely get twelve different answers.
Some take this writing tip to mean direct experience. Want to write about New York City but never been there? You must travel to the Big Apple and immerse yourself in the city and the culture until you know it. If that isn’t feasible, then stick to the places you’ve been.
Other writers take the phrase at its most literal interpretation — a challenge to immerse themselves in research and collect the knowledge they need.
Still others take a more abstract approach. Ursula Le Guin’s reply: “As for ‘write what you know,’ I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them.”
What do you know?
I know what it feels like to teleport. I know the world between the Human Realm and the Spirit Realm. I know a place with magic and languages that haven’t been recorded yet. I know valdenars and kálos and siriens, even if nobody else does.
I think that writing about what you know includes all of the above interpretations — experience, knowledge, and our own unique imaginations.
But I think it also goes a step further.
Writing Tip: Enhance Your Prose With Familiar Details
Writing what you know imbues your prose with an air of authority. I’ve talked before about the importance of genius loci in writing, and mastery of details is an important skill.
We’re all humans, and we all share common experiences. As I explored in the extended metaphor of the violin’s song always permeating the scenery, even in a fictional place, those real-world details can pull a reader into a written piece.
I’ve never met a dragon personally, but I know how the heat from a bonfire starts to prickle the skin on my face if I sit too close for too long. I know how it feels let a pile of coins slip between my fingers, and I know the sound they make when they hit a wood floor. I know how a fish’s scales catch the light and how the scalloped edges feel against the ridges on the tip of my thumb.
I know those details, and thus, I’m still writing what I know, just in a different situation than the ones I actually experienced. By weaving familiar sensory details into fantasy, I can ground a reader into the story. We may not share all of those experiences, but most people have lived through many of them. That common ground connects the writer and the reader.
Even the uncommon ground that a writer has tread in real life but the reader has not can be described in such vivid detail that it’s as if we do share those experiences, and we lived through them together. Writing has magical properties like that.
And so, my advice is to bring what you know into the orchestra of words so there’s always a familiar song playing in the background, even when exploring unknown territory.
This is how we write what we know.
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