Mark Twain is sometimes credited with this quote: "Write what you know."
That quote has been tossed around in the writing world over and over again. I know I've heard it countless times, and I thought I knew what it meant. It's obvious, right? Write about things that have happened to you. Write about people you know, the things you've done. That's how you make writing authentic, right? Base everything you write on your own life experiences.
Well, partly wrong.
There is nothing wrong about writing based on your own life events. There's gold there. But I think the real meaning of that quote is all about emotions, not events.
Write what you know. Write what you feel. Write what you have felt.
Explore those base and complicated emotions in your writing. How did you feel when your first pet died? You experienced grief, sorrow, confusion, and pain. Use that to write. You don't have to make your characters lose a pet to use those personal emotions. You can use your own pain and grief as inspiration for your characters, but use it in a different way. The feeling will be authentic, even if the events themselves never happened to you.
That's the beauty of writing - that an author can make the reader feel, and feel deeply. How is it that you can read a fantasy novel based in a world that doesn't actually exist, and you can feel along with the character? It's because those root emotions the author uses are real.
Think about the last book that made you feel something. Was it because the character reached the finish line? Or slayed the dragon? Or stood up to their abusive family member? No. It was because of the emotions attached to those actions and experiences. It was because of that feeling of triumph, of accomplishment, of pride, and of relief. You felt along with the character because you've experienced those same emotions or feelings, or, at the very least, you're able to empathize.
Emotion is universal. We can all understand it, even if it's based around made-up people in made-up worlds. No matter what, we all feel the same things in the same ways. That's what builds connections between readers and characters. That's where the magic lives.
Writing what you know is about emotion, not events.
So, take a moment and write down or mentally explore things that happened to you in your life that made you feel deeply. Analyze those feelings. Understand why you felt that way.
And then start writing.
I'm an adjunct creative writing professor and freelance writer, but I dream of being a published novelist. This is my journey.