I’ve often heard people say that writers should write what they know, but I’m not sure if that is always true. If you are writing science fiction, for example, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure if you stuck to simply what you know. Not many of us have been into space, or met an alien, or been shot at by a laser gun. Writing what you know would not get you very far.
I’d rather say, write what you love. Write what you dream about. Write about the fantasies that captured your mind as a child and stayed with you as an adult. But keep your dreams and fantasies grounded with character elements and emotions that you know.
I’ll give an example. Once I saw a woman and her daughter waiting in the school parking lot. They were an unusual looking pair. The woman was very short and extremely voluptuous. She had stocky legs, and quite a bit of “junk in the trunk,” as well as large breasts. But instead of fighting her shape, or trying to disguise it, she seemed to embrace it. She wore a tiny skirt and a tight tank top in bright colors. She’d gathered her mass of curly, dark hair into a series of ponytails that stuck out of her head at odd angles. She wore sexy sandals, and her brightly painted toes stuck out of the top. Her daughter looked and dressed just like her, and, as I watched, them, I could tell they felt confident and beautiful about how they looked. It was obvious from their body language that they were completely comfortable in their skin.
As I watched these ladies, trying to imagine their backstory in my head, another girl joined them. She had straight, shoulder length brown hair pulled back with a navy blue headband. She was wearing a plain white t-shirt and navy blue shorts. She had on navy blue sneakers. She was of medium height, medium weight and medium size. She was very, very normal looking.
When I saw her get into the car with the mother and daughter, I had to wonder if she was part of their family. And that is when it began, the “what ifs.” What if the average looking girl was the daughter of the flamboyant woman? What if she hated having a mother who was so different looking? What if her sister was just like her mother? What if they were actually aliens?
“What ifs” are the beginning, middle and end of every great story, and the basis of every great character struggle. Begin with what you know, with an idea that inspires you, and built on it until you reach something completely different. The “what ifs” propel your story, but writing what you know keeps it real, even if you are writing a complete work of fantasy.
Mixing what you know with what you dream about is the key to creating great fiction. Adding bits of your own experiences and observations can add depth and breadth to your characters that make them feel more realistic to your readers. I might not know any aliens, but I know what it is like to be part of a family, and to have a mother and sisters I care deeply about. Adding those elements can keep your story grounded, and will make your readers feel more connected, even if the story you are writing is about aliens you met while waiting in a parking lot.