Raise your hand if you’ve been told “write what you know.” That’s great advice if you’re writing a memoir or other piece of nonfiction, but for a fiction writer I firmly believe that advice is garbage. I prefer to take that advice and twist it on its side until it becomes use what you know and take it somewhere new.
If we only write what we know, our worlds are limited. JK Rowling wouldn’t have created the world of Harry Potter Suzanne Collins never would have come up with the Hunger Games. EB White wouldn’t have given us Charlotte and Susan Meddaugh never would have fed Martha the Dog alphabet soup until she spoke. Because of their creativity, these writers have given us whole worlds, some more complex than others. The beauty is that they’re all based in reality — there’s a familiarity to each of them — but the writer had the creativity and imagination to move beyond the confines of write what you know and turn that into write what you can imagine.
I love using real-world settings and feelings in stories, but saying I have a story that takes place in New York City is only a starting point. Yes, I was born in Manhattan and yes, I spent more than enough time on its streets to be able to evoke the feel of the place, but that doesn’t mean I stop with what I’ve seen. I need to take it a step further and create something new and fantastic to go with the gritty urban setting.
Using what’s familiar breathes life and a sense of balance into a story. Adding something commonplace into a situation that’s otherwise fantastic is a great way of grounding the reader and giving them something they can relate to and rely on. This is reason enough for me to want to use palpable cultural references. I do know writers who shy away from referring to real-life things and people, sometimes for fear of copyright infringement and other times for fear of not sounding original enough but I say if the situation calls for it, use it. Then make it your own. Throw in a reference to Pearl Jam or to Coney Island or to Virgin Atlantic. It’s not free advertising, it’s something comfortable and familiar and relatable, something that brings your readers into the story along with you as long as it’s used appropriately.
Remember, what we know is a great stepping-off point to a whole new world. Let what you know be a springboard to what you’ve only imagined, and what you create will become as real as the house next door to your readers.