Posted in Books, Christabel's Tale, Medieval Romance, Paranormal romance, Sneak peeks at the new stuff, Uncategorized, Works-in-Progress, Writing process

In defense of “Write What You Know”

librarianIn a recent writers roundtable over at comic and fiction writer Sean H. Taylor’s blog (Bad Girls, Good Guys and Two-Fisted Action, and if you’re not reading it, you’re missing out), we talked about the best and worst advice we’ve ever received as writers. More than half of us piled on the hate for that cursed pearl so loved by high school creative writing teachers everywhere: Write What You Know. What a load of crap, we agreed. How boring would fiction be if writers only ever wrote what they knew? There’d be no science fiction, no fantasy, no horror that didn’t make you cry and throw up, and very little romance of the slightest interest to anybody but the parties involved. I was part of the lynch mob, I freely admit. I think this idea of writing what you know has produced more soggy, self-indulgent crap calling itself story than any concept ever devised with the possible exception of “why do vampires have to be so mean?” Most of us in the roundtable write speculative fiction of one kind or another, and we rejected this nonsense out of hand. “Write what you know,” indeed.  But now that I think more about it, I’m not so sure we were right.

After all, the advice isn’t, “Write ONLY what you know.” Very few of us have autobiographies that the average reader would find enthralling, no matter how artfully we might present them. There are exceptions, of course, and different readers will always be interested in and inspired by different things. But anybody who has a friend or cousin who posts every breath they take, every move they make, every leaf they rake to Facebook knows what I’m talking about. That being said, we all of us have our moments, and for writers those moments “recollected in tranquillity” (to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth just this once and never again, I promise) are what bring our stories to life and make them uniquely ours. Isaac Asimov presumably was not a robot, nor did he own one. But after reading the Foundation trilogy, I’m pretty sure he spent a fair amount of time is some situation which caused him to consider the need for and dangers inherent in altruism and the search for identity in plain, old, ordinary humans. Closer to home, I’ve never experienced a romance with a vampire, angel, or immortal faery prince. But I’ve loved and lusted people whose power felt out of proportion to my own, physically or otherwise, stayed in relationships that I weren’t sure were good for me because I cared for the other person so much, fallen hard for the bad boy. Because I know how that stuff feels and because I can write what I know, I can, hopefully, make a relationship between a human woman and a supernatural being live for a reader. And the same holds true for smaller, more specific details. I met my husband in person after knowing him online for two years. So when my heroine in Christabel’s Tale is nervous about meeting her internet beloved, I can describe just how she feels, even though my husband is not supernatural in any way but the way he manages to love me first thing in the morning. What I know combined with what I can only imagine is what makes my anything-but-hard-reality fiction come to life.

And there’s more than one way to know stuff.  The advice isn’t, “Write ONLY what you know FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE.” Research isn’t always necessary when you’re writing fiction. Too much research can be deadly if you try to shoehorn in too many “true facts” than your story can support. (Paging Diana Gabaldon; Phillipa Gregory wants you on the phone.)  But if you’re writing about a time or place that actually exists or existed, you’d do well to read up on it first, even if you mean to deconstruct it down to rusty rails and put a steampunk topper on it. Nothing takes a reader out of a story faster than crashing into a detail that doesn’t belong. In the very first chapter of my very first Lucy Blue book, My Demon’s Kiss, my heroine walks through the cellar of her medieval castle past a basket of potatoes. Not magical potatoes, not vampire potatoes, just potatoes, set dressing, no big deal. Except nobody in medieval England had ever tasted, seen or even heard tell of potatoes. And oh my kittens, did I hear about it, and rightly so. That one mistake on page one destroyed the fragile experience of that story for the very sort of reader it most needed, a reader interested in living in a fantasy of the real medieval world. They could accept the existence of vampires because I focused all my gifts as a writer on making vampires plausible within that world. But those stupid potatoes I threw in a corner of a cellar and forgot just didn’t belong, and it was my job to know it and get them out of there. So don’t do that. Get your facts straight. Write what you know.

Right now as I write this, I’ve just started work on a horror novel set in the here and now in a small town in South Carolina very much like the one I’ve lived in all my life. I’ve written a short story or two set here in the Beautiful South, but never a novel, and rarely anything that explores the gothic version of this world as I see it.  I’m writing what I know, and it’s liberating and very, very scary. The story is very much supernatural horror, and I wouldn’t wish what happens to these poor people on anybody, bless their poor sweet hearts. But ghosts and demons notwithstanding, they live in a world I know very well, and so far, I have to say I like it.

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Author:

Writer of gothic and supernatural horror-romance novels.

98 thoughts on “In defense of “Write What You Know”

  1. Right what you understand seems to be more along the lines of what I’d do, not a perfect statement but if you generally avoid writing about things you don’t understand or don’t want to understand, you are gonna have a bad time. Stop trying to detail the science behind this EX Hydron LZ series accelerator if you don’t understand it, leave that alone or check up on some science and research WELL the topics you want to talk about.

  2. To add to your defense of “Write what you know”:

    While you do not *need* to write from a standpoint of familiarity, there is a very legitimate merit to incorporating the deeply known into writing.

    Specificity.

    Research can teach you, but you cannot acquire mastery and understanding: two resultants that will translate into passionate words and the extremely fine details from which artistry is born. Depth of character and a fictional life as detailed and unique as any real life is the mark of high literature. I don’t think it coincidental that most historically acclaimed writers dabble in those hobbies, crafts, and professions they have some experience in.

    Sometimes I wonder if the phrase “Write what you know” should be re-framed as, “Write what you understand.”

  3. One of my favorite quotes from any writer anywhere ever about writing is this, from Joe Haldeman:

    Bad books on writing and thoughtless English professors solemnly tell beginners to ‘Write What You Know’, which explains why so many mediocre novels are about English professors contemplating adultery.

    But I take your point.

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this situation. I’ve always found it strange when people told this to me because I mainly write fantasy.

    I do agree however that even if I don’t mean to, my subconscious incorporates my life experiences into my work one way or another (I don’t notice it until much later).

  5. Great write! I think you should write about what you know but also venture out and try to use your imagination and push yourself further. That way you can also learn from writing what you don’t know about.

  6. I enjoyed your post and found it very interesting. I am probably a good example of the dangers of doing too much research. You can end up going on quite a journey without doing any writing at all.

  7. As a refugee English major, I am quite familiar with this debate; however, when my professors uttered those infamous words, they rarely stopped speaking. “Write what you know” is just a suggestion and can be interpreted according to your own creativity. After entire semesters of learning how writers write, my professors (all but one, who was not very creative at all considering his speciality in poetry) would usually say something like “now you know the rules; go ahead and break them.”

  8. I’ve always taken the phrase to be more along the lines of “Write what you know to be true” or “Write truth”. As in, don’t fake it. If you fake it, people will know. If you try to create monsters out of the orange slime that comes from the runoff of orange soda producers (unfortunately now a book I’m feeling the need to write…), you have to do it honestly, confidently, and with some sort of background to make the reader believe this could actually happen. Because the worst thing you can do as an author is have the reality you’re creating be questioned.
    I’ve long stayed away from reading romance novels. Partially because the genre is not really written with the male in mind, but also partially because of the trap many romance novel authors fall into, which is forgetting to ground the fantasy in truth, which too easily makes the story as thin as the worst adult film, but the details aren’t graphic enough to be considered erotica.

    1. First of all, your orange soda runoff monster book sounds awesome. Secondly, I agree that some romance novels devolve into super-soft-core erotica because the characters don’t live and the stories have no specificity, to use Gibble96’s excellent word for it. I have the same problem with thrillers where every woman the hero meets falls madly in lust with him on sight just to add a little human interest/spice to the story. (Or every man the heroine meets – this is definitely not a gender-specific phenomenon.) Good romance, I think, has to be a compelling story about people who seem real where the main plot arc is the relationship between them. If any of those elements are missing, it’s a failed book, even if it fulfills the fantasies of some readers.

      1. Oh how stupid sentences uttered (or typed) end up sounding as better stories than the books I actually write 😉

        But back to the topic…I’m totally with you here. Fear genre!

  9. I’ve always taken write what I know to have a broad definition. Often times I create fictional story characters with similar attitudes and mannerisms of people I’m familiar with. Model after them I suppose. Research is a good way to get in the know about a subject. I spend a lot of time reading or listening to audiobooks, watching documentaries or movies from a time period I’m trying to portray.I tend to write what I’m passionate about if the assignment is my own and often in this case I know a lot about the subject. Where I see that write what you know doesn’t work is with any (or most) paid writing jobs. As a freelancer or full time writer for clients or a regular boss, the assignments can range from a little out of your normal writing types, or way out of your comfort zone. This sort of paid writing is necessary for most of us who need to make ends meet. I can say with clarity in this instance that write what you know doesn’t nearly apply. Great article, I thoroughly enjoyed reading. ^_^

  10. I think the real advice is write what you have passion or feelings for. You can write outside of what you know to stretch yourself, but writing outside out what you have passion for usually produces dry, boring writing.

    1. Good point – if you don’t care about your story, you’ll play the devil making a reader care about it. This is a trap a lot of “write to the market’ authors fall into, I think.

  11. I love this article and it makes so much sense. When I started working on my Steampunk novel I felt like it may not be something I should do since I had never read the stories before. After reading them I fell like I have a better understanding of them and can not only write a good Steampunk novel, but I believe I can change the genre somewhat. This is because I changed “What I know” about steampunk into something that is beneficial and gives me a chance to make intelligent changes.

    Great Article, congratulations on being freshly pressed.
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  12. They even teach “write what you know” in college classes focused on writing. I enjoyed this piece though. You make a good point overall. Also, props on being freshly pressed.

  13. Thanks so much to everybody who commented – you’ve all added so much good stuff to my original point. And thanks also to all you wonderful re-bloggers – you rock!

  14. Yes, I agree we all have life experiences which we can weave into our stories. Your potatoes example was very interesting, I remember the brouhaha about a great Australian writer Kate Grenville when she wrote “The Secret River” Historians ridiculed her depiction of the relationships between Indigenous and European settlers for not being historically accurate but how would they know for sure? Our understanding of the Indigenous Australians has been jaundiced from the beginning, many things have taken place in life which have not been documented or verified.
    I enjoyed your post

  15. Nice! I think Toni Morrison said it best: “Everyone always tells you to write what you know. Well I’m here to tell you, you don’t know shit. So write what you don’t know. I don’t wanna hear nothing about your grandmother.”
    And potatoes are always good with me 😉

  16. Love this. The only way I know how to write is by using my own life (maybe that proves I’m not a good writer who knows?). I can only write funny things if I think they are going to be funny. If you change what you write too much to suit whoever you are writing for it may come across as hollow and not genuine.

    If all else fails I write something I would want to read – at least then I know I’ll sell at least one copy (maybe 2 if I can persuade my dad to buy one!)

    Well done on the blog and congrats on being freshly pressed!

    Soph

    Please vote for Sophie She Wrote in the UK Blog Awards 2015 for info and details see http://wp.me/p4yGPk-9g

  17. Lots of comments posted so someone may have already stated this, but really it should be, “write what you are passionate about” or ” write what you would want to read.”

    Well done

  18. This is always how I’ve viewed Write What You Know – although variations I’ve heard that I’ve appreciated is “write what you want to know.”
    But then, why neglect -what you already know-? I appreciated this post for embellishing that thought 🙂

  19. Not all of our experiences are noteworthy (although my leaf raking photos are just dandy I’ll have you know!). But as you noted, the everyday is important to whatever story you are going to craft.

    Congrats on being freshly pressed. Perhaps your 5 minutes of fame will translate into something worthy to put into the pages of your next book…

  20. Some excellent points, and I loved them all. Of course, having a memory like the main character in the movie “Memento” doesn’t exactly leave me a lot to write about…what we were talking about?

  21. ‘ The advice isn’t, “Write ONLY what you know FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE.”’
    I couldn’t have put it better. I really like this old pearl. Just because it is practical doesn’t mean it is limiting. I’m writing a fiction in fantasy setting but I have endeavored to give all the significant characters personality traits and snippets of back story losely based from myself and the people I know or have known to flesh them out and give them more realistic weight. And so far my Beta reader would seem to agree.

  22. obviously being a fictional writer you’re going to make up a lot of stuff… but when it’s based in any sort of reality or just dealing with real experiences you have to know some about it… I was just reading some post where this guy is writing a book about a teenage girl doing whatever… but he said there was no love interest and he didn’t understand why every book about such always made it where the girl was always thinking about boys… but I called and asked every single girl and woman I know to recall what was the number one thing on their mind when they were teenagers… and the answer was boys… and I think the problem that writer has may be that he was never a teenage girl (though plenty of men have written books about such quite well) but more so he must not have really spent a lot of time around girls or understand them… while a book may not have to be about the girl falling for some guy… any book about a straight teenage girl’s look at life is going to mention her thinking about boys at some point… the fact is with things like that, if you don’t know it or never experienced it you’re not going to be able to write about it too well…

    1. I have to say, I don’t think you really get where he’s coming from. Just because you and everyone you know was boy-crazy at that age does not mean his logic is invalid. Boys were the last thing on my mind at that age. I always felt very excluded by the fact that all media aimed at females my age assumed that was my consuming interest. Perhaps it is for many people that age, but it isn’t for EVERYONE, and the rest of us deserve to have some media representation too.

      1. well I wasn’t meaning the girl had to be boy-crazy… she doesn’t have to be obsessed or even in love with some boy… but a bunch of teenage girls chatting and hanging out are at some point through especially a long book going to talk about boys… and maybe that wasn’t the best example for my point… but it was if you can’t understand something or really know much about it you can’t write about it…

      2. That’s my whole point though – just because that’s true of you and your friends doesn’t make it true of everyone. Boys were not something my friends and I *ever* talked about. It just was not especially important or interesting to us yet. We had other interests and things on our minds. So to say that ANY teenage girls will ALWAYS, sooner or later, end up discussing boys, is stereotyping. Which was the point the original author was trying to make. That was all I was commenting on tho’.

      3. sorry but now I’m just insanely curious… by what age did you start thinking about boys? I mean right now I’m talking high school age it started being a big deal… and I know it’s not impossible… I have a friend that I don’t recall much talking about boys and even now into her late 20’s she doesn’t seem interested… I think she likes her life the way it is… but I have to say that was the only girl out of every single one I met or dealt with at that age and younger who was that way… so I do find it curious…

  23. Reblogged this on Writer's Oracle and commented:
    So true. Many stories I’ve written have come from others. I’ll hear a snippet of an experience here and a snippet of an experience there — I weave them together into a yummy story.

    So step outside of your “Write What You Know” and find new information on the stuff you don’t know.

    Well written piece.

    I also find that Author’s who know TOO much end up dumping unnecessary information throughout the book. I end up falling asleep or just skipping over those tedious paragraphs upon paragraphs of unnecessary details.

  24. IMO people take ‘write what you know’ too literally, and that’s how it goes wrong. I always interpreted to mean something more like, “Write in the contexts that are familiar to you because you will be more detailed and accurate there rather than writing in totally unfamiliar zones”, but with the understanding that these ‘familiar contexts’ could be emotional or symbolic or whatnot rather than literal. And it also doesn’t exclude the possibility of -becoming- familiar with something through research or whatnot before then writing about it. Or maybe an even better way to put it would be, “Include connections to yourself, your life, your experiences, and it will all feel more real.” This doesn’t mean that, because I’m an artist, my main character has to be an artist, too. That’s how a lot of people interpret ‘write what you know’… you’re a lawyer, so write about the law. Or you’re an ex-cop, so write about crime. That can work out, I think, but I also don’t think it’s really the intended spirit of the quote… at least as I always understood it.

    This is especially important in the context of heavily imagination-based work like fantasy, sci-fi and horror. A totally abstracted fantasy may be beautiful in a way but it won’t stir your readers, but one which expresses your own hopes, dreams, and fears in the symbolic form of knights, fairies, and dragons? Well-executed, that’ll be a lot more powerful to most readers, because underneath the imaginative imagery is a relatable, familiar core.

    Also, I think more generally it just means that the better you know something the more detailed and realistically you’ll be able to portray it. I don’t know much about how things work in big business, so unless I did a lot of research and such to familiarize myself first, anything I tried to write involving big business would probably not be very detailed or realistic, and thus my writing would suffer. In short I take it less as advice to focus on things I already know, and more as advice to make sure I know what I’m talking about before I put anything on paper!

  25. maybe its also about exploring what you know and finding you knew more than you thought. i also do find that when writing fantasy it still has a seed of ‘what i know’ in there, or the conclusions that you come to in your own life – its impossible to get totally away from ‘what you know’

  26. Reblogged this on 100 Words A Story and commented:
    I’ve always heard this, “Write what you know.” I kind of interpreted this as take the experiences and moments in your life and use them as a starting point. As a writer, it is our job to create and when we do it helps to have something to work with. So I find this post rather interesting.

  27. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for writing this. I absolutely agree and it drives me absolutely bonkers when people take “write what you know” so literally. I truly believe that this phrase has less to do with situations, and more about writing honest and believable characters which is one of the most critical parts of storytelling.
    If you think about it, some of the best writers create characters that readers can identify with on a deeper level, and many times it’s because the writers themselves have experienced these feelings and can articulate them into their writing.
    So write what you know in order to make even the most unbelievable situations real, and write what you know so your readers connect with what you’re trying to say on a more profound level.

  28. I also think the phrase has been maligned at times simply because it’s been read too literally, or from a skewed viewpoint. One thing I seriously doubt, however, is that the original author of the phrase ever expected this amount of controversy to be generated by their good-hearted attempt at helping out their fellow writers. Lol.

  29. The greatest writers write what they know. If they don’t know it, then they learn about it. Michener’s “Alaska,” for example, was way outside of his back yard. But he investigated thoroughly so he did know about it. Or think of Stephen King and Castle Rock – the imaginary name of the place he grew up and where most of his novels take place. Mark Twain’s adventures of Tom and Huck on the river – two blocks from his childhood home. Melanie Benjamin’s intense historical truth’s stretched into fiction – 99 percent of her work is research. That’s what writing is about. If you don’t know it then research it. Complaining about it is really no different than a couch potato complaining about getting off the couch. Writers, write what you know!

  30. I take the ‘Write What You Know’ as not what you already know, but what are you curious about. What’s something you really want to delve into. If you’re interested in a topic, researching it will be fun or stimulating for you. And a reader will be able to pick up on that passion. If you’re fascinated by a subject or time period, odds are there are plenty of readers out there who feel the same way.

    Use ‘Write What You Know’ not as a confining box, but as an opportunity to learn about a broad range of subjects and topics. It’s one of the benefits of being a writer. We can be like jack and jills-of-all-trades.

  31. I love this. Anything you write has to be infused with truth from your own life, even if you do it in sneaky ways. I think it makes dealing with infuriating people easier. You can file away details from your interactions with them to make characters your readers will hate later.

  32. Anyone reading my life story wouldn’t get past the first two or three pages before being overcome with sheer boredom. No, most of us shouldn’t write what we know. unless one has lived an extraordinary life. We can however write a fictionalised distillation of what we might know or from what we have seen, heard and read. And what about research?

  33. In the spirit of Socrates, I supoose this also means speaking what you know, which then entails knowing that you do not know anything at all—or something like that. In any event, Socrates needed a Plato, just like Azimov needed a robot, and so on. “There’s more than one way to know stuff…”—there is much wisdom in this truism. One wonders why there is any need to call it fiction at all.

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