How To Write What You Know

March 11, 2014 | By | 17 Replies More

photo 2 At some point, all writers get told to “write what you know.” It’s part of the landscape of a writer’s life, like being told, “I’d love to write, but I’d never find the time,” or being cornered at parties by bores panting to impart long tedious anecdotes that “would make a good novel.”

In the pantheon of Things That Writers Get Told, “write what you know” recurs at intervals, regular as sunrise; seductively simple and just common sense, surely?

Actually, “write what you know” can be surprisingly divisive for writers. On the one hand, people stack up the writers who have drawn heavily on their own lives and circumstances; Catherine Cookson with her plucky Geordie lasses and their illegitimate children; Tess Gerritsen‘s successful pathology career which predates her bestseller books; Nancy Mitford laying out her famous family’s eccentricities in pitiless, scandalising detail;  Elizabeth von Arnim caricaturing her dour first husband in her runaway classic, Elizabeth and her German Garden, and filleting her abusive second husband in her later novel Vera.

And it can be appealing to translate your own experiences into fiction, a way of reclaiming and transcending difficult and upsetting times. Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn satirised her husband, Carl Bernstein, as “a man capable of having sex with a Venetian blind” after he had an affair with a mutual friend while Ephron was pregnant with their second child.

The idea of the roman a clef as revenge has a massive appeal, but it only works if the victim doesn’t sue. Fortunately for Ephron, Bernstein didn’t, possibly because a libel case would have to depend on his being able to be recognised from the description of a man who could get romantic with a window covering.

Others have suffered the consequences though; Byron’s lover, Caroline Lamb, found herself blackballed from society after her novel Glenarvon was read by people whom she had caricatured within it. So success isn’t everything; writing what you know can bring other problems.

Against these writers who have successfully written what they knew, we can stack up a bunch of others who ignored it and succeeded anyway.  Emily Bronte is the classic example of a writer who magnificently ignored this advice. She had never had a love affair when she dreamt up Heathcliff.

Roddy Doyle wrote a gritty, compelling account of a woman surviving an abusive marriage in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and Stephen King’s breakthrough novel Carrie has as its heroine a teenage girl. None of these great books would have been possible if you had to be limited to writing just what you knew.

J. K. Rowling wrote her Harry Potter series about a boy at boarding school. If you take it to its logical extreme, how can anyone write what they know and write sci-fi, or fantasy? How can I write a male protagonist?

But writers don’t have to be split into those who write what they know and those who don’t. At some point, everyone brings to their writing their own experiences and feelings; the question is how, not whether, you write what you know.

Emily Bronte may have never so much as kissed a man before producing Heathcliff and Cathy’s tempestuous romance, but she set her classic on the wild and deserted Yorkshire moors where she herself lived. J. K. Rowling dreamed up Harry and Hogwarts, but the influence of her mother’s death on her writing led to some achingly poignant scenes for the orphaned Harry, looking to find some connection with his lost parents. (She also based the character of smart-aleck Hermione on herself aged eleven.)

photo 3The character of Carrie began as a composite of two girls Stephen King knew at high school. His plot was his own, but the girls who eventually became Carrie were drawn from real life. The truth is, writing what you know is important, but not everything you write needs to come from your life, and it doesn’t mean producing something which absolutely reproduces your own circumstances every time.

What it does mean is this: know people. Study, and understand how people react, and you will write believable, consistent characters, which no fiction piece can do without. Just as there is always something from your life that you can bring to your writing, there is always a choice of what to bring.

For example, a policewoman could write about the police, about the criminals she meets, about the family she goes home to at night, or the ice hockey she plays in her spare time. We are all multifaceted beings; there’s a lot of choice out there. Write what you know isn’t a safety net, it’s a challenge. Set your stories somewhere you know. Do your research if you need to; don’t try to bluff your way through without it, because someone is bound to catch on.

Then get out there, find your working space and – in whatever way you choose, as far as you want to – write what you know.

Claire Thomas Hawnt is a freelance journalist and writer of fiction, also writing under her maiden name of Claire Louisa Thomas. Her book BiOlogy is available on Kindle here:

Find Claire on Twitter @failedspinster

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

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  1. Lori Schafer says:

    I think all writing is a combination of writing what you know with what you don’t. My second novel is a funny and romantic threesome story – a scenario about which I know nothing. But I made the main female character a commitment-challenged ice hockey player – about which I know a great deal! To me this is the fun of writing; placing characters you understand well into situations you yourself have never encountered, or conversely, creating strange and unusual characters and exploring how they behave in circumstances that are familiar to you. Ultimately I think you’ve cinched it with one phrase, Claire – you have to know people. If you know people, you can write them into all kinds of situations and know how they would behave, and that’s what makes for compelling and believable writing.

  2. Ruth Geldard says:

    Great article-made me think…for writing to be convincingly authentic it must be grounded in what we know. But surely actual, proper Fiction, only results when truth lifts off, exploring other potentialities, through research or in the amalgamation of characters and events to create something new…isn’t this creativity?

  3. Emmelie says:

    This is a great post! I really like the advice about knowing people. I’m currently studying Psychology at school and I think it’s a great subject for writers because it’s teaching me a lot about people.

  4. Vanessa says:

    Advice more appropriate to the speculative fiction genre would be “write what you research.” If you’re going to be credible to sci-fi readers, for instance, you will want to know, to some extent, the science involved in your fiction. And I have seen, as an editor, many a fantasy author spend countless hours researching history, anthropology, linguistics, mythology–the study of people in their myriad forms. Not just what people are, but what people can be, and were.

  5. I agree with so much of this article, especially studying and understanding how people react. During my time as a tour manager with a UK singles’ tour operator, I had the opportunity to do that. Consequently, I was able to write with conviction and produce believable characters in my novels Singles’ Holiday and Singles and Spice, to the extent that readers ask if they are actually people I met. The answer is ” No”; I used my knowledge and observation as the foundation but the actual building up of the plots into stories and books was done using my imagination. I am comfortable writing about what I know; my two other novels, What’s Eating Me and Sweet Lady touch on scenarios I am familiar with. Unfortunately, writing about what I knew got me fired from the tour operator who now use the title of my book (Singles’ Holiday) blazoned across their advertisements.

  6. Rosanna Ley says:

    Don’t just write what you know, write what you want to explore.

  7. Kat says:

    Great article! There is a world of difference between “write what you know” and “narrate real life experiences”. It’s actually a pet peeve of mine when people try to guess who my characters “really” are, mostly because they are always wrong.

  8. Gill Wyatt says:

    I really enjoyed this post because it made me think about how much of what I write comes from what I know. I find that when I’m writing, even the subjects that I know still need a lot of research and imagination. I’m amazed at the things that come back to my mind when I’m writing about a particular subject. A very thought provoking blog. Thank you.

  9. Sarah says:

    Heartily agree that ‘write what you know’ can’t be taken too literally. Imagination overrules it, every time! Research can cover places you haven’t been, or technical matters you haven’t studied. What you need to ‘know’ is human interaction, loneliness, love, hate, loss… And if you’ve never felt any of those, what are you doing writing?
    Thanks for opening this discussion, and good luck in the future.

  10. Julia says:

    Lovely article. We write what we know without even realizing it most times. Even Miss Emily wrote what she knew…she might not have known corporeal love before Heathcliff, yet she lived within the mystery of love, understood its remote opportunity for women in her day, and deeply felt both the aching and the brooding. She knew all that, which became aspects of Heathcliff, personified. Our awareness seeps in and we cannot stop its necessary sharing. Writing what I know, Claire, took me to first place in non-fiction on with En Utero-Stories of the Womb. It was a painful and necessary birthing. I wrote from shame of shame to help move through this trickster emotion. I feel that when we write what we know, the words flow out from our heart, and that may be one of the best gifts we can give our readers. Hope your book soars on Amazon wings!

  11. I can only write about what I know. My life has been varied & full so I use it to write my stories. My book Twists & Turns of Time is what I have lived & felt in different periods of my life. I thought I was in charge of me & my destiny but LIFE taught me otherwise. Looking back I realized LIFE knew better than me.

  12. I like how Ryann said it. I think writing what we know is as much about writing about the common human experience–love, hate, fear, good, evil– as much as it is writing about our particular life experiences. Very thought-provoking piece.

  13. Ryann says:

    Great article, Claire. You bring up some great points. The saying “write what you know” is far too limiting to be taken in the literal sense. I think “write what you know” has to deal with emotions more than personal experiences. It’s all about analogy (like method acting). Method actors connect with their characters on the emotional level. Writers do that too. If a writer’s ever felt anything passionately before, then they can transform that feeling into something else.

    I recently wrote a post about how writing what you know on the emotional level for anyone that’s interested:

  14. Writing about what you know brings your writing to life. You can explain and tell the story from personal perspective which gives the reader a better picture and feel for the story being told. You can’t just write about what you know, though. You also have to write with passion about the things that you know.

  15. Fran says:

    I love this post, Claire. For me writing what you know is about understanding what makes people tick and you can only get that from real life. So if you choose sci-fi or fantasy for example the people in the story have to be believable. That plus a good story and you’re half way there. Some people think that writing their life story is what it’s all about but real life can be so boring. I stick to what I know but infuse all the imagination I can in the hope that my story will entertain.
    And I agree with doing your research, if you haven’t your reader will never be convinced by your story.
    Thanks for posting and good luck with your book.

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