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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Do You Really Need to Write What You Know?

“Write what you know” is one of the most often heard phrases in the writing world. When I began seriously writing, my first reaction to this bit of advice was, “Oh heck no. No one is going to tell me what to write!” I didn’t want to write what I knew. That would be boring. I wanted to explore new worlds and dive into old ones.

It didn’t make any sense to me because I was hearing it very literally. I kept thinking, “Well, if writers only wrote what they knew, we’d have no fantasy or scifi or historical novels.” I mean, unless people were out there falling in love with vampires or having their home planets overrun by meat-eating aliens, it just wasn’t possible to always write what you know.

What I finally realized was that the best writers really do write what they know. Now, does that mean Stephenie Meyer has recently run into a family of vegetarian, sparkling vampires? Or that J.K. Rowling once stumbled upon a whole community of magical kids running around undetected by all the muggles somewhere in Britain? Of course not! (Well, not that I’m aware of in any case).

So how do writers write what they know? They infuse their stories with all of the emotions, knowledge, and life that they’ve experienced and use all of it to build their characters and storyworlds into incredible books that suck their readers into a new reality. I’m willing to bet that Ms. Meyer has, at some point in her life, experienced fear and loss and that total exhilaration of first love. J.K. Rowling was certainly never a magical teenage boy fighting a weird, snake-looking wizard…but she probably knows what it feels like to be terrified, excited, helpless, alone…to find friends who love you, fight for something you want, and maybe have things turn out great in the end.

To write what you know, you need to write about something you care about, something that touches you. That connection you have to your subject will come through in your work.

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut sums it up perfectly:

Find a subject you care about and which in your heart you feel others should care about. It is the genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

Agent Rachelle Gardner had a great post about writing what you know last year. In her opinion:

Write what you know means write with authenticity about thoughts, feelings, experiences of life. Be honest. Write from a deep place. Don't write from the surface. Whether you're writing about parenthood or cancer or anything else... be real.

Don't reflect what you know from other people or the media... write what you know from your own inner life.

There is a more literal approach to the “write what you know” statement as well. It really is necessary to be familiar with your genre and the world of which you are writing. There are little quirks and “rules” to every genre – what works for a romance might not always work for a thriller.

Agent Scott Eagan posted about this in his blog a few months ago. He stated:

It is crucial for you to write in the niche that you know the best. By doing so, you understand the twists and turns to that genre that others might not get. More importantly, you understand the voice that is commonly associated with that genre.

This can also be an area when a little research can come in handy. If you are writing a book set in Ancient Greece, it is necessary for you to do enough research that you really know what you are talking about. Otherwise, you will never be able to truly transport your readers into the world you are trying to describe. Mary wrote a wonderful post about how familiarity breeds authenticity. You may not be able to personally experience the day Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii, or what it is like to live beneath the ocean, but you can familiarize yourself enough with the pertinent details that you can convince your readers that your characters are living through those experiences.

This applies to the worlds you create yourself as well. Fantasy and science fiction writers create their own worlds, true. But there are certain rules even within the realms of fictional worlds. Maybe in your world, women have supernatural powers and men don’t. Or maybe blondes can see the future and brunettes can fly. You can make whatever rules you’d like for your universe, but you have to stick to them. And you have to have enough knowledge of that world to convince your reader that the experiences and emotions of your characters are authentic and appropriate for the world in which they live.

When you write a book, you want to suck your reader into your world – whether that world is set in the past, the present, the future, or on some other planet or reality…you need to know enough about that world, your characters, and the things they will feel and experience to draw your readers in. Using your own emotions and experiences, and your own specialized knowledge about the world you are creating, will help you craft an amazing story.

In other words, my dear writers…yes, write what you know ;-)

Michelle McLean writes YA fiction, children’s picture books, and adult non-fiction, and has been published in three Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She holds a B.S. in History and a M.A. in English. If her nose isn’t stuck in a book somewhere, you might want to check her pulse.


christinefonseca said...

very nice post Michelle.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great post, Michelle!

Windsong said...


Before, once I had an English teacher explain the term to me, I though write what you know was simply shorthand (longhand?) for saying: research what you're writing about. If your characters are on a boat, you better know enough about boats and sailing to make it feel real.

Only recently have I heard about adding the emotional and life experience dimension to the definition. It really does make everything so much real when the reader can connect with the character through the emotions. I love this part about writing the best--taking off my shoes and slipping into my character's, and hoping I write well enough that the reader can too.

quixotic said...

Great post. I especially connected with the point about researching so you "know" what you are writing well enough to convey it.

Lady Glamis said...

Great post. I recently did a post on this and compared it to lace - Lifting The LaceAnd in essence, the conclusions I came to were the same as here. Thanks for some wonderful thoughts!

Eric said...

Very good post. I'm just beginning this path, but "finding" what I know and writing about it is really the fun part.

Scott said...

Great Post.

I always scoffed at the idea of 'writing about what you know' until I literally took that advice. The words flowed (to the point of obsession) out of me. I was leaving myself voice mails, sending emails, and jotting down notes at traffic lights to/from work each day. I could not stop the flow of words. It was an amazing experience.

So, as this blog so aptly put it: take the life you know and infuse it into your writing.

StrugglingToMakeIt said...

This is a great post. Everyone should read it. I, too, took that literally for a long time. And I'm sure many others do as well.

It just dawned on me what that phrase really means as I was working on my latest WIP.

Oh and yes, research is so very important. It really does throw me out of the story quickly when I read something I know isn't accurate.

Tabitha said...

Great post! I wrote a blog post about the same concept last year, and it's really nice to hear the same conclusion from someone else. :)

Crystal said...

Great post, Michelle!

I always took the "write what you know" phrase literally, too, until recently. I had never considered the aspect of writing what you know to be emotionally true. But then I realized I was already doing that with my characters, as I am writing a historical MG novel. Since I did not grow up in the 1940s, I only know that time period from research. But I do know feelings of anger, hurt, joy, and sadness, and I put those feelings into my characters.

PurpleClover said...

Hmmm, I think it would have benefited me to read this post prior to my post on "Bad Writerly Advice" that still seems to be bringing in quite the comments!

But I'm seeing it now from a new perspective thanks to the comments I received.

Michelle McLean said...

Thanks for all the comments everyone! It's very nice to know I'm not the only one out there that A) took this a little too literally at first, B) has since seen the light and is a better writer for it, and C) loves research!!! It's very fun to find other writers that actually enjoy the research process...I was starting to think I was just exceptionally weird ;-)

Dutch said...

To write what you know, you need to write about something you care about, something that touches you.

Very well put. Can think of nothing to add.

Gitty up - Dutch