Discussions, Writing

The Issue of Writing “What You Know”

Hello everyone… welcome to another post on writing! Yay! Even though I haven’t been writing loads lately, I’m still always down to have a long chat about writing lol. Today’s post is something I’ve been struggling with ever since I’ve tried to write an Islamic-fiction book (since I stopped my fantasy novel… around two years ago)… and I’d love to discuss it with you guys because I definitely feel like there are two sides to this.

Now, I’ve done a couple of creative writing courses and things… in one of them I was told “write what you don’t know! Be creative… explore!” but with the most recent one, which I enjoyed the most and I think really helped me to grow my writing skills was “write about what you know, to avoid cliches and stereotypes and be more original” and I 100% agree that the latter makes more sense.

However, there’s a problem with writing what you know… how do you avoid just writing about yourself and your life???

I’m scared to write what I don’t know because I want to be able to do something justice – and I don’t believe I’d be able to do that if it was something I’m not familiar with… like writing about a protagonist that is an adult maybe haha (this is so true though, whatever piece of writing I’ve done I’ve always based the age of the protagonist on the age I was upon writing it, because it’s what I could relate to the most and remember the most vividly). I also think this would decrease the quality of my story and I wouldn’t really know what I was talking about and be super cliche.

Whenever I’ve attempted to write an Islamic-fiction story in the past couple of years I’ve always just ended up writing about myself (subconsciously or unconsciously… it really is what I know best haha) – and it’s ended up feeling like an autobiography! And then people I know who read snippets of the writing also say they can see myself reflected in the main character (and not only is this frustrating to me because I don’t want to write about myself but also – it’s quite invasive LOL!).

I guess this is something I just need to keep working on, although I have tried to change certain aspects of my main character to make them different to me but it hasn’t ended up working out. For example – I have never been able to make my main character someone who is shy! Because I’m not a shy person – of course I’ve felt nervous, but I don’t understand real shyness that people struggle with because I’ve never experienced it.

However, I also don’t believe that all authors base their main characters on themselves lol. It’s definitely possible to be able to write about a main character that isn’t yourself. I think me writing Islamic-fiction – something that is already very close to home for me – makes it so much easier for me to slip down this route of just writing about myself and my own life and struggles (which is completely different to simply taking inspiration from yourself and your life experiences). I hope I’ll be able to achieve a balance… one day!

Anyways, what do you guys think about this? Have you struggled with something similar? What tips/advice do you have for me?? 🙂

Speak to you all soon!!!

6 thoughts on “The Issue of Writing “What You Know””

  1. Salaams Ruqs! First of all: LOL ‘it’s quite invasive!’ Ain’t that the truth! This whole write what you know debate has always been interesting, but I don’t think I’ve thought of it very deeply. In my opinion, it’s impossible to JUST write what you know. There’s going to be some aspect of your story, setting, a side character, whatever, that you might not be the most qualified to write because you don’t know much about it. I personally think that’s ok though. Part of what makes writing fun is learning and trying new things and expanding your knowledge. I have many ‘main’ characters in my story who all have very different personalities, and some are quite opposite to me. My main main character is a boy, and I’m always careful how I write his perspective because he’s a boy and he’s not going to think of things like I, a girl would (I mean not to say girls and boys think totally different, but on some aspects we do. Plus he’s a kid and I’m an adult, so I’m constantly trying to engage my inner child LOL). I personally think the write what you know aspect applies to particularly sensitive topics. For instance, you might want to be warier writing about an indigenous person’s perspective on some political event, because we truly don’t know how marginalized communities may be harmed, and trying to craft our own perception of their hardships can be offensive. Here it might be best to leave that pov alone, or do some very diligent first-hand research before moving ahead with it.

    As for writing self-inserts, we’ve all been there loll and it is rather embarrassing. But one thing that helps is the ‘one thing I’m glad to have, one thing I wish I had, one thing I could do without, and one thing I’m glad I don’t have’ approach. One of my characters was a self-insert so I used this approach. Essentially you can start by giving them one of your best traits and one trait you wish you had. This is usually already present in most self-inserts, maybe cause we like writing awesome versions of ourselves lol. But then you gotta make them flawed too, so you can give them one of your flaws and a flaw that you are glad you don’t have. This varies up your character a bit. Other ways to spice up your characters is through other characters, because it affects different aspects of their personality and how they interact in given situations. For example, you could give your character a terrible mother, so now she acts kind of prickly around women and is disliked by the female community because of it. You can give them multiple siblings, like a whole bunch, and now your character is more outspoken and prone to physical altercations because of having to constantly live with a loud (and raucous) crowd at home. This way you can create diverse characters, and though it means writing outside of what you know (for instance, you might not have parental issues), it’s ok to do some research and do your best to give justice to each narrative. Just because you don’t have first-hand experience, doesn’t mean you can’t do it well, because trust me a little diligence will go a long way in separating good representation from the bad.

    Sorry for always practically blogging in the comment section of your blog (why do I always write paragraphs everywhere I go?), but I hope these tips might help you and others a bit. Best of luck with your writing, and never give up!

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  2. Walaikumasalam, Amina! Thanks for another great comment! 🙂 I completely agree with everything you said, you’ve brought up some really good points that I hadn’t thought that much about but now it just makes so much sense haha. See that’s very brave of you to have a main character as a boy – I almost wouldn’t know what to write about! But I definitely think I need to get out of this whole thing and do as you said -to just try new things and expand your knowledge.

    You bring up a really good point: that writing first-hand is more to so with particularly sensitive topics than everything. I’ve never head of the “one thing I’m glad to have, one thing I wish I had, one thing I could do without, and one thing I’m glad I don’t have approach” but it sounds really good and I’m definitely going to give it a go. Your tips have been sooo helpful I wrote them all down in my notebook haha!

    And don’t you dareeee apologise because I love reading your comments and tbh, you make such good points and seem to definitely have a lot to say in this discussion especially Islamic-fiction, why don’t you consider maybe making your own blog one day? 🙂 I would definitely follow and this community could use another Muslim blogger advocating Islamic-fiction, Muslim representation in books and talking more about writing! I totally get that blogging isn’t for everyone though, no pressure at all 🙂

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  3. hahaha thanks, I’m really happy to hear that the advice has been helpful, totally makes my day when I can help someone! And yeah having a male main character is challenging, but I’m lucky that I have two brothers and many cousins that are around the same age as him so I get a lot of advice and research done through them loll. I really love reading people’s blogs and opinions but I never really considered starting my own. I think I’d have trouble with consistency on posting and *GASP* what if I run out of things to say?? But you’re right, advocating for Islamic Fiction is something I really care about and admire in others who do it (like yourself). I do wish I could help this cause. I’m thinking that we need a platform where Islamic/Muslim fiction writers can come together and talk about their work, it would be so great to meet more people out there. We could give advice, share progress, write together, do writing challenges, etc. I have a friend on the Nanowrimo forum and some sisters in a WhatsApp sisters writers circle (though people haven’t been very active there) and I was thinking to combine them somehow and encourage more people to join, but I’m not sure how to do that or if there’s a big interest in it.

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  4. Haha I do get that starting a blog is definitely a whole new territory! Nooo hopefully you won’t run out of things to say, if anything, I almost have too many things to say loolll. We really do need a platform where Islamic/Muslim fiction writers can come together and talk about their work – I think it would be really motivating and encouraging, and we could also give each other feedback on presenting the Islamic perspective of something etc. I think the main thing which would be really helpful is just continually motivating each other to keep going. I would definitely be interested in it, so if you don’t mind I’d love to join if you do decide to do something 🙂 You could make one big WhatsApp group? I’m not sure of any other platform ideas tbh. I unfortunately don’t have many friends who are writers so I can’t really contribute in inviting people to join.

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  5. Of course, I’d love to have you in the group! One big WhatsApp group, that’s not a bad idea, except some people left the group and others may not want to join due to the WhatsApp policy update. I also have a pretty trashy phone which kept me out of the group for a long time after I made it (which was really embarrassing) and I do not want to relive that experience XD I’m thinking we might need something more expressive as well, and one thing that comes to mind is Discord. It may be better for those who don’t want to use their phone numbers, and I’ve been in many groups through that app and it really is good for fostering an online community. I think I’ll propose the idea to others and see what they think, and I’d love to know your thoughts on it. I totally understand the writer friends thing, I have virtually no IRL friends who write, and Muslim fic at that! I basically cast a desperate call in my university’s MSA group chat for any writers and thankfully had some people interested. Still, the group is pretty quiet, and I think maybe getting more people will initiate some conversations or just more ways to connect with others and different projects.

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  6. I think Discord sounds like a really good idea! Yeah, hopefully… sounds like a good plan. I can try and ask around my friends and people I know to see if there’s anyone interested as well…

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