Urban legends have a way of being created out of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the dark, or just plain fear. The trouble is, they tend to take on a life of their own and travel from myth to accepted fact without ever having the necessary substantiation.

Such is the case with my favorite urban legend. One that freezes any writer in their tracks, prevents all creativity and in the end, stalls them almost indefinitely.

Only write what you know. (underlined AND in bold!)

Those words, supposedly uttered by someone famous, have been passed down for decades to every aspiring writer including me. No know could ever tell me for sure who actually said it, it was just said. Just like how every urban legend comes from a “friend of a friend”. I believe it was created out of fear of success. After all, if everyone is saying that you can’t write about something unless you’ve lived it, well that gives a writer the biggest out of all. I can’t write today because I haven’t solved a major crime, solved an international crisis or murdered my husband after he’s had an affair with my best friend.

The assumption is that only if you’ve been a superspy, criminal mastermind, serial killer, profiler or basically lived a larger than life existence, can you write about it. Hmm. Theres a big problem with that. A significant number of successful and talented writers have been nothing other than people with vivid, intense imaginations who wrote fearlessly, and utilized every bit of their imagination.

Imagination is the stuff of legend. It is the creation-sustaining lifeblood for any writer. It slays dragons, reunites long lost loves, builds a castle from thin air, and traverses the dark and winding corridors of the soul. All that before the lunch!

Just because many people have lived an adventurous life doesn’t mean they could write about it and by the same thought, just because you’ve lived an average life doesn’t mean you can’t write about an adventurous one.

If everyone only wrote about what they knew, wow, would that be boring. I’ve talked to a lot of people in my life and basically, if they all wrote about what they knew, I’d never buy the book. I didn’t even want to be treated to the preview.

Instead of write what you know, it should be write what you imagine. This is what makes or breaks the writer. We can always learn what we don’t know, we can research, interview and then imagine. Create a character and a story that no one else can. Think beyond ourselves as writers, beyond the accepted. Imagine what could be and then write it. Never be intimidated if someone else writes on the same topic because no one could write the story you could write.

Write because your imagination sends you there. If you don’t know the necessary facts, get them. Just write. Don’t let old adages, or fears of others intimidate or suppress your dream.

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Comment by Dana King on February 24, 2009 at 12:34am
I'd mkae one change to the old saying: Write what you know; leave out the ONLY.

You can learn a lot about what you want to write throuhg research, but there's also a lot you know that can be used in a book right away, regardless of subject. Are you a butcher, or was your father or uncle a butcher? Get a butcher into the story, of have a major character who is married to, or the offspring of, a butcher. (Teacher, mail man, astronaut, doesn't matter.) Everyone knows a million little everyday things that can be worked into a story. They may not be enough to carry the story, depending on the experiences and what you're writing, but they can lend realism and life to your characters and situations. (I wish I'd thought of tht myself, but I got it from Stephen King's ON WRITING.)
Comment by Karyne on February 23, 2009 at 7:42am
Absolutely! Research is critical to utilizing authenticating details, but its easy to get bogged down in so much research that you don't get to telling the story. Each part has its own measure of weight in the whole process.
Comment by I. J. Parker on February 23, 2009 at 4:54am
Well, let's not forget the importance of research, though.

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