The phrase write what you know can be damaging to a writer when taken too literally.
If I wrote only what I knew, I would be limited to the quirky adventures of a screenwriter and her friends in Los Angeles. My main character would spend most of her time writing, running, and blogging, with occasional trips up to abandoned ski resorts to film horror movies or battles done with crocodiles in the harbors of Mexico.
In short, the movie that I want to write does not resemble my life.
But that’s not how “writing what you know” is supposed to be interpreted. It means that you’re supposed to use what you do know as a jumping off point to write what you don’t know anything about, thus lending authenticity to your writing.
Here are 5 ways to write what you don’t know, in a way that will ring true with the reader:
1. Use the relationships in your own life. As writers, one of the strongest resources we draw from are the relationships we have in our own lives. Even if we don’t mean to, the love stories we write reflect the kinds of romantic relationships we’ve had or witnessed. When the emotions conveyed on the page stem from our own experiences, they’re intensified. So when you’re inventing characters, it’s okay to base them off of real life relationships before building on them and adding fictional layers. The best make believe comes from a place of truth.
2. Start with an experience. The idea you’re most passionate about often stems from an experience you’ve had in real life. Not only will this inspire your work, but it’s also a great hook to use when you’re pitching this story. Being able to say, ‘this screenplay is personal to me because this-and-this happened’ proves that you’re invested in this story, and that it means something to you.
3. Search for parallels. Not every writer has been in a car chase, but I’m sure you’ve sped through yellow lights or had to make an illegal u-turn at least once in your driving career. So take the rebellious feeling you get from defying minor traffic laws and amplify that. You probably — hopefully — don’t know what it’s like to have killed a man. But have you ever been directly responsible for something that has caused you immense guilt? Take parallels from your own life and apply them to your work.
4. Do research. Good research can make up for inexperience. If you’ve never been to a country or city before, take a Google Streetview tour, read travel guide articles and firsthand tourist accounts about that place, and turn to good ol’ Wikipedia. That way, when you reconstruct this place in your writing, you can draw from concrete facts from your research and then fill in the gaps with your imagination.
5. Try something new, every week. Have you heard the phrase, ‘in order to write about life you have to live life’? Take it seriously! Challenge yourself to seek out a new experience every week. Go to a museum you’ve never been to, take a walk without knowing where you want to end up, spend time with new people, do something touristy in your own city, or visit that delicious LA coffeeshop/ballet studio/antique place on Pico Blvd. called Paper and Plastik. They have damn fine cups of coffee.
Writing the unknown is a thrill — but in the end, your experiences and personality will always inform your fiction in some way in tandem with your imagination. Just like dreams, fiction is an amalgam of the real and the imagined.
Carry on, brave scribes!