“Write what you know” This is probably one of the most popular pieces of writing advice out there. We’ll all have been told it at some point and there’s a good reason for it. It allows you to bring an authenticity to the story that someone unfamiliar to the genre or story subject would otherwise struggle with.
But what about us fantasy writers?
How do you write what you know when you’ve made up a world? How do you make people believe this story about magical powers when you’ve never had any experience with it outside of other novels and stories?
Interpreting “write what you know”
It’s something I thought a lot about while I was studying writing in university. My conclusion is to not take it so literally.
I don’t think “write what you know” means you should only write about your experiences or your background. How limiting would that be?
That doesn’t mean I ignore the advice entirely. Writing what you know for me means that you should know your subject, your genre, your setting and characters so well that they become real in your mind. This gives you bit more flexibility to work on things you never thought you could, as long as you research and get to know your subject well.
Knowing your subject and your story is so important, especially when it comes to fantasy world building.
What does this mean for fantasy?
So in the case of fantasy, the best way to write what you know is to make sure you know absolutely everything about your world, inside and out. You need to be an expert on your world, a walking encyclopedia of knowledge so you will be writing what you know.
Imagine someone asking you a really obscure question about your world. Would you be able to answer it?
How to write what you know when it comes to:
- Your setting – Whether you’ve made your world from scratch or not, you need to really know your setting. What is the world your characters experience like on a daily basis (both with and without the drama of the central story)?
- Your characters – Know your characters like you would your children. Write out fact files and decide on everything from what drives them as a person to what their favourite cheese is. Learn their quirks.
Knowing the fantasy genre
Besides knowing your world really well, it helps to know the wider genre well too. Hopefully you’re already reading widely in your chosen genre, and not getting too consumed by building your own world.
Sometimes reading great worldbuilding can be an inspiration, other times it can be a bit deflating (how the hell am I going to write something like this?). Either way, it’s still important that you know your genre as well as your world.
Read tons of fantasy books, preferably all different types. Immerse yourself in other worlds and learn from them. What can you apply to your world, what can you do differently? You can learn a lot from what other writers do. it’s just important not to copy them too much!
Also make sure to take time out for a break to read something completely different. You can learn more by studying the differences than you would by just reading your favourite genre.
An example of not writing what you know
When I first tried writing fantasy, I found that I was trying too hard to imitate things I didn’t know enough about.
A lot of classic fantasy is based on medieval Europe myths and legends. I felt like I had to do the same and try to recreate this in my own stories in order to be a proper fantasy writer.
However, I didn’t really know a lot about medieval Europe. I think I know more about how fantasy writers use inspiration from that period than I do about that time period itself.
As you can imagine, I ran out of things to say. Everything felt a bit flat in my world and to be honest, I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I’d hoped. I’d also made the mistake of writing the story first and then researching and worldbuilding after. I realised pretty quickly that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.
What did I know?
So, this got me thinking. What do I know? I already knew I wanted to use history as a source of inspiration for my world, because I love history. I also think it’s really helpful using history as a kind of guideline. But it was ancient history that I was really interested in.
I’ve been in love with ancient Egypt since I was very young. I don’t know what it is but I love everything about it and could never get bored learning more. So I decided that I would use ancient Egypt as my inspiration to (loosely) base some parts of my story on. This meant that I knew my world a bit better because the little details felt more familiar.
I realise that this wouldn’t work for everyone, but whatever your method is, I’d love to hear about it.
How do you write what you know in your novel/fantasy world? Do you agree or disagree with the ‘write what you know’ advice? Please share your thoughts below.