The Ugly Side To “Write What You Know”

I’m not sure how I feel about the famous “Write What You Know” advice.  There’s an ugly flip side to it that says, “Hey, if you don’t know it, then you can’t write about it.”  I hate being limited like that, and it lights a dark fire in my skull that shrieks, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”  Fire in your skull can be amusing but unhealthy, so I approach this a few different ways. 

There’s the “Back off!” way, where you decide to write about space aliens and zoophycos ichnofacies just to spite the advice.  You may not know anything about these subjects, but everybody can go hang.

There’s also the “Well, I do know a lot about slaughter houses/crocheting/restoring furniture, so I could throw that element into my next novel,” approach, which I personally adore.  I’ve read a zillion books where people fall in love.  Ah, but if she falls in love with a soldier on active duty, that’s very different from the book where she falls in love with a widower with three kids, for example, or a farmer or guitarist.  The every day things in your life might be thrilling to somebody else. 

There’s also the “I know what loneliness feels like, so even if my story is set in 16th century France, it’s still something that I’m familiar with,” approach.  I received some very good advice once.  Agent Andrea Brown said that no matter what the genre is, if you focus on the classic things like love, betrayal, and death, almost anybody will be able to understand your book.

And, of course you can go out and learn the thing that you want to write about.  My motorcycle scenes fell a little flat until I actually went out there and *gasp!* learned to ride a bike.  Suddenly I realized that my main character’s motorcycle maneuver would have actually SNAPPED HER LEG OFF had she performed it as written.  Whoops.

There’s another approach as well: tap into your resources.   I wanted to write a scene about boxing, and I’m sure this will surprise you, but I’m not a hardcore boxer.  I kick box but I’ve never sparred with another person, and I don’t have the time right now to run out and sign up for a class.  So what did I do?  I ran to K. Allen Wood screaming, “Ken! Ken! You simply have to tell me all about boxing!”  He knows all about it.  Did it for years.  I was saved!

I just received a wonderfully detailed email describing exactly what I needed to know.  Ken also included several videos, and that was helpful, too.  Not did he tell me what was going on, but he showed me so I could understand it better.  Cool?  Cool.

So sure, write what you know.  Write what your friends know.  Go out and learn it so you can write it.  But never, ever let somebody tell you that you can’t write something because you don’t know it.  You’re just not familiar with it yet.

20 Comments on “The Ugly Side To “Write What You Know””

  1. I read an interview once where the writer said that all of his stories were based on alternate versions of himself. They obviously weren’t who he was but they were who he imagined he would be if he had taken a particular path in the past.

    He didn’t know those paths, directly. But he did know the person involved. I think that’s often more important. Not to say you shouldn’t get the mechanics of the action down, you should. It should be accurate. I don’t feel as if that’s the most important thing though.

    You can always correct what you don’t at the time know. It’s damn near impossible to correct a character after it’s all done.

  2. I don’t know the first thing about school shootings but I wrote a chapter on one a couple of months ago. Challenging and very difficult (emotionally and otherwise). But I’ve been told I handled it well. (I still think it could be better)

  3. Fabulous post – and wonderful advice. I’ve never been one to let “what I know now” to stop me from learning something new and “knowing” more than I did. That’s part of the beauty of writing, I think – it gives us a very good excuse to go learn or learn about as many things as possible. Variety is good. 😉

  4. Excellent advice! I like the “learn a little bit about everything” approach to writing what I know. If I know a little bit about everything, I can write about everything! And sometimes I get so interested in the little bit I know, I learn more about that topic and can make it the central facet of a story.

  5. I think writers take the “write what you know” advice a little too literally. Subject matter can be learned–even if it’s just the crib notes version of that subject. One of the great things about being a writer is that it’s a constant education.

    What I think is really meant by the phrase is, in order for a writer to convey the experience they’re writing about, they need to have experienced something in their life they can draw from. You can surround your character with the most accurate, detailed information in the world but if your character (i.e. you) can’t connect with it on an emotional level, the character will be as two-dimensional as the page it’s written on.

    On the flip side, to ONLY write about what you know can get kind of repetitive after a while. What if you’re one of those creepy cat ladies who only writes about cats! The first creepy cat lady book might be interesting, but the next “Adventures of Whiskers and His Band of Merry Manxes” will be just more of the same.

  6. I say, “Hey- if you don’t know about it, then learn it and write it.”
    And if you can’t learn it, that’s what the imagination is for 🙂

    1. I don’t know Lua. Imagination can take things in the wrong direction – and if something is wrong and an editor doesn’t catch it, someone in a writer’s readership is going to somewhere down the line. It’s better to be well-researched and well informed than to fill in the gaps and make mistakes.

      For example, I can’t stand it when people get medical facts wrong. Throws me right out of the story.

      Do your research and get the facts right the first time.

      1. I guess it came out wrong- what I meant to say was, learn the things you can learn (like medical facts- they really bug me too) but for the things you can’t (like I’ve never been in love but I do enjoy writing about it) use your imagination 🙂
        I’m all about research- that is one of my favorite things about writing…

  7. Learn enough to be dangerous, then let the imagination take you the rest of the way.

    Unless you’re trying to become a neurosurgeon. Then you should learn enough to be a good neurosurgeon, otherwise you’ve no business mucking about in people’s skulls, whether or not they’re aflame.

    But we were talking about writing, weren’t we? Yes, I suppose we were.

    I agree with the go-out-and-live-a-little thing. Yup.

  8. Shad, true dat. Personally, I think that character trumps all. But I still need that character in a situation that I’m at least familiar with. A character in a box makes for a tedious story. I know…I’m thinking of the “Rand al Thor in a box” book in The Wheel of Time Series.

    Anthony: I’d be interested in what you’ve gone out and learned! Do you study up or take classes? That’s very cool.

    Mari, I just watched a special on Columbine a few nights ago, and it instantly took me back to where I was when I heard about it. You’re tackling a super tough subject, but it’s so important. Good luck, my friend!

    Jamie, I love how you call writing “an excuse to learn”. That just rocks. 😀

    Ken-Thank goodness I didn’t really use any of it, then. 😉 Seriously, though, thanks for the help.

    Cate, it’s all in the hips.

    K.C, I think that learning something, getting fascinated, and making it central to the story is an awesome idea. I just read a mystery where the MC was a gardener, and it was just different enough and fun enough that I really enjoyed it. It was nice to have a character digging among flowers instead of being a tough, hard boiled detective. Change is refreshing.

    K- Stop making fun of my book. “Mr. Whiskers Goes to the Opera” will make me millions.

    Natalie: That you do. I…don’t know what to say. 😉

    It’s great to see you, Ray! I’ve missed you!

    Ha, Lua! I think writers could live in our imaginations forever! Mmmm….Imagination Land.

    Simon, I would be the BEST NEUROSURGEON EVER. You’d try, but I’d still beat you, and we’d have our #NeurosurgeonChallenge, and every week you’d have to hand over the reward. Kinda like what happens now. >:)

    Thanks for the comments, everybody!

    1. Yeah I can’t watch or read anything about Columbine without crying my eyes out. Columbine has been at the center of my research. Very difficult. That chapter was hell to write. I had to give myself breaks. Long breaks. I dread going back to edit it.

  9. Nah, just standard research. For instance, my first novel has an aura reader in it, so I went out to some psychics and aura readers to have my aura read. Or recently, for my new novel, I’m trying to get a tour of a grain mill, or at the very least ask the owner some questions. Stuff like that.

  10. Here’s a bit from my writing planner about how “write what you know” isn’t an absolute…

    Remember (spoiler warning!):
    -Jane Austen never married.
    -Herman Melville never caught that whale.
    -Arthur C. Clarke never went to the moon.
    -Stephanie Meyer has never met a vampire.
    -Dan Brown (probably) doesn’t know all the secrets of all the secret societies.

  11. I so agree. If I stuck with writing what I know, I might not be so inspired to write. I watched scenes of sword fights over and over to get my descriptions, and work out the action.

    To work out hand to hand fighting, I grabbed my husband and said, ‘do this’, then, ‘if I do this what would you do next?’ It worked.

  12. Thanks for a very inspirational post, Mercedes. I’ve often felt uncomfortable about writing what I don’t know, so I do as much research as possible. I think that’s a great piece of advice, to seek out someone who DOES know, and they are usually more than willing to help out!

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