We’ve all heard the old dictum: “Write what you know.”
It’s generic advice often given to authors, especially those who are writing a first novel of even a work of non-fiction.
While there’s an element of truth in such advice, there’s much more to writing books than sticking with those areas with which you are familiar by virtue of training or education.
As a physician, forensic psychiatrist and novelist, it would be easy for me to write about medicine, psychiatry and courtrooms—all of which have been, and are still, part of my life and experiences. For the most part, I don’t have to do much research since I’ve been involved with the field of human behavior for many years.
Yes, I’ve written about psychiatry—both in non-fiction and in some of my novels—but if I limited myself only to those areas—familiar as they may be—my novels would be one-dimensional and repetitive.
When I wrote Beyond Bedlam’s Door: True Tales from the Couch and Courtroom, I tapped into a vast wealth of patients’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences—be they people I saw in the hospital, a nursing home, or in my private office. Each told a compelling story—a narrative of conflict and struggle—sometimes with no resolution in sight.
Their stories were about profound and at times, life-altering experiences. Though I was writing about psychiatric issues—something I “knew”— it struck me that each these patients knew a great deal—and I was the beneficiary of each one’s reservoir of knowledge.
So, the logical question is, “If you are going to write about what you know, what exactly does any writer know?”
We all know far more than we think we do. After all, we’ve all had experiences of many kinds. As did the patients about whom I wrote.
Haven’t we all felt lust, envy, love, anger, fear, anxiety or sadness? Haven’t we all experienced loss, or a sense of triumph, large or small? Haven’t we all quested for something—no matter how great or inconsequential—and haven’t we all been frightened, disappointed, or felt unsettled, worried, or exhilarated about something?
Hasn’t each of us encountered people of every stripe imaginable—those who are kind, gentle, caring, or those who are mendacious, manipulative, or even evil? Some people are naïve and childish while others are braggadocios or overbearing. And still others can sadden us or fill us with a sense of comfort and well-being.
We’ve all been to school, to social gatherings, movies, concerts, business or professional meetings. Every one of us has walked through a city or woodland, or played a sport or been carried away by a movie, play, novel, or television program.
We’ve all had experiences as kids, teens, and as young adults—and we’ve all had first loves or felt overwhelmed by circumstances that seemed beyond our control or understanding. We’ve each encountered illness, threats, and feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, guilt or shame—whether warranted or not.
And at some point in our lives, we all deal with growing older, with the loss of friends, the death of a loved one, with marital problems, loneliness, despair, and eventually, we must come to the realization that we ourselves are mortal and just passing through this world.
In other words, we all live life.
And that’s what we know.
So, if you write about what you know, you are writing about a universal experience: life.