How to write what you know (even when you don’t know)

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It’s as ubiquitous as “Show, don’t tell.” You probably can’t even remember the first time you heard it, it’s touted so widely – in advice books, in classrooms, in movies about writers. Even the most non-writiest nonwriter who hasn’t held a pen since high school knows to write what we know.

But what does that actually mean?

For the budding storyteller, it’s a good stepping stone for getting words on the page. Write what you understand, what you can easily talk about, what’s already in your repertoire. Not sure where to start? Start with your surroundings, your experiences. If you’re a hot dog vendor in NYC, write about being a hot dog vendor in NYC. If you’re a goat herder in the Swiss Alps, write about being a goat herder in the Swiss Alps. If you’re a collector of Japanese companion dolls, write about…. Er, maybe not that.

“BUT NOEL,” you cry. “What if I want to write about dragons?? I don’t know any dragons!”

Ahh, and here’s where “write what you know” gets more interesting, because it’s not as literal as that.

Writing what you know means taking what you understand and applying it to new scenarios. It means drawing from your experiences and emotions in order to project your imagination into unfamiliar terrains. You’ve probably never battled a dragon (and if you have, um, invite me next time, cuz that sounds fun), but you’ve certainly felt fear before. Adrenaline too. You’ve felt sweat drip down the bridge of your nose and the strain of your muscles when you lifted something heavy. (In real life, maybe it was a box. But in your story, it’s THE MYSTICAL SWORD OF ELL’THW’AAEEAA’APOSTROPHES.)

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Your book can be spectacularly opposite of everything in your life, but if your character is human, then you can draw from your own knowledge and sense of empathy. In my first novel, the protag’s significant other has an affair. I’ve fortunately never had to endure that kind of betrayal, but I once went through a period where I was unsure whether my former boyfriend had feelings for another or not, so I tapped into all that remembered heartache.

Do you always have to write what you know and only what you know? Nope! The beauty of writing is your ability to imagine. As authors, we possess the gifts of time travel, shape-shifting, and telepathy. We can transform ourselves, place ourselves in others, imagine how they feel and think. We can say, “That’s never happened to me before, but oh man, what if it did??” That’s essentially storytelling, isn’t it? Envisioning the what-if.

If you don’t know it or can’t imagine it, you can find out. In this case, “write what you know” becomes “write what you want to know.” What are you curious about? What question throbs in your mind, seeking answers? I’m fascinated by neuroscience, and it was through studying brain tumors that I got the idea for my second novel. But I had no idea what the actual, gritty, living experience of having cancer was like, so I had to find out. I read a ton of testimonies and had a three-hour interview with a woman undergoing radiation treatment. My empathy deepened so much from that talk, and I thought about cancer in a much more personal way afterward. As my character lay in that MRI, I was able to transport myself into her situation with the help of that interview, plus my readings, plus my own imaginings. Where my imagination failed, my research kicked in, and where my research left off, my imagination filled the gaps. It all works together.

Tell me, what’s your take on the “write what you know” slogan?

~ Noel

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20 thoughts on “How to write what you know (even when you don’t know)

  1. I’ll answer with an excerpt from my own novel, where I got a sideswipe in at authors who write about stuff they have no clue about:

    Fairy stories always went down well, but also histories, especially of the places they were in, and historical novels (although Aiella was apt to wax sarcastic when authors got the details wrong. One poor fellow had been excoriated for a week after Dartea had read out a passage that had severely mangled the principles of falconry. Dartea had come to give an inward cringe every time a character picked up a sword or, even worse, a bow).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Where my imagination failed, my research kicked in, and where my research left off, my imagination filled the gaps.”

    Great line! Well put. I was talking about this exact concept with someone recently — how you work with what you know and research the rest.

    This post also got me thinking about how so many books have writers for protagonists. I can understand the impulse, but it gets a little old, haha. I was contemplating ways to leverage my various past jobs and wondering what I’ll do when I “run out” of job experiences to draw from. Cross that bridge when, etc. 🙂

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    • Thanks Jamie! Haha, yeah, I can understand the temptation to make characters who are writers, because we relate to them so well, but it’s a bit stale now. I actually found a list on a literary journal’s site of stories they will reject out of hand, and included on that list was “stories about writers,” ha. They must be getting a lot of them, poor editors. I’m also a bit tired of characters who are journalists. Too easy. With a journalist, we already know their personality is going to be curious, smart, driven… a bit daring when they’re on the tail of a good story… It’s like the journalist job comes stocked with a ready-made character. I understand they might be necessary in certain genres – who else will get close enough to the crime in a mystery novel? – but I’d still like more variety.

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  3. “THE MYSTICAL SWORD OF ELL’THW’AAEEAA’APOSTROPHES” – easy for you to say!

    I’ve always thought myself to be a very empathetic person, and draw on that heavily in my writing. It’s a way of turning one’s tendency to overanalyze other people into a strength.

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  4. Great post with plenty of excellent advice as always Noel. For me I’d also add that it’s an important step to also understand where your writing skills lie. Sure, you can (and should!) challenge yourself to write in different styles or genres to improve your overall ability but as well as writing what you know it’s important to write what you’re good at. I have lots of subjects that fascinate me but I have to find a way of exposing them or exploring the emotions in a style that works for me or the writing process is just hideous. Some people excel at describing sadness or loss (for example) through beautiful prose – I tend to be better at using humour as a counterpoint. Thanks for getting my brain ticking!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good point! We all have our own strengths, and part of discovering who we are as a writer is embracing our strengths, rather than forcing ourselves to write how we think we’re “supposed to.” That ties in really well to writing what we know – thanks for mentioning it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi! I’m not sure if you want to participate in this or not, but I have nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award. Your nomination will appear in my post on Friday. I think you have some amazing writing talent and some very good ideas. Please don’t feel obligated to participate if you don’t want to, but consider this a way of me trying to get you some web publicity!

    Liked by 1 person

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