are you writing what you know

Are You Writing What You Know?

tips for writing what you knowMany writers rebel against the oft-quoted command about “writing what you know.”

My automatic response to this stricture is the rhetorical question, “Why on earth would I want to write what I know? I live what I know. When I write, I want to explore people I’ve never met, places I’ve never seen, and situations I’ve never experienced.”

The day I stop believing that is probably the day I stop writing fiction.

But does this really mean I’m not writing what I know?

Not at all.

In fact, I would be a fool to try to write about a subject without understanding it—if not through personal experience, then at least through intensive research.

East of the Mountains David GutersonDavid Guterson’s East of the Mountains offers an imitation-worthy example of how to start writing what you know—or what you learn—to brilliant effect.

(And, yes, this is my second post on East of the Mountains. Get ready, because the lessons I discovered in this book will probably spill over to several more posts.)

Guterson’s story follows an elderly man, who has just discovered he is dying of colon cancer, as he treks across Washington state, reminiscing about his life and hunting chukars with his dogs one last time.

Every page of this book rings with authenticity. Guterson accurately and precisely portrays the nuances of bird hunting, apple picking, veterinary surgery, and trucking, among other things.

Guterson may well have personal experience with all these subjects, but I doubt it. Instead, I think he buckled down and researched every detail of his story so he would be able to share them correctly with his readers. He allows readers to see everything from the intricacies of a shotgun to the posters on the vet clinic’s walls.

The result of all his hard work is an undeniably vivid setting and a resultantly unforgettable story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Are you writing what you know or what you learn? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I think this bit of common wisdom is probably most difficult for writers of fantasy to reconcile. How in the world can writing about wizards and dragons and stuff be “writing what you know”? In the meantime I’m just writing what I love.

  2. K.M.
    Good post! Having been a songwriter for many years, I find myself drawing from all the songs I listened to or played when I write. It’s the same with my stories. Even though I may be making up characters and situations, it works best when it’s filtered through my experience – that’s what helps me nail down the loose ends.

    Patrick

  3. Regarding setting and physical environment, I write about what I know (since I don’t have much time to research). I think it’s fun to dig into the unknown when it comes to themes, thoughts and character’s behavior >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  4. @subcreator: I actually ended up doing almost as much research for my upcoming fantasy Dreamers as I do for most of my historical novels. Even if the worlds in our fantasy stories are made up, they’re usually based on real models, and it’s important that we portray the facts with clarity.

    @Patrick: Research aside, I tend to think that the whole “write what you know” command really boils down to writing what is emotionally true. We don’t have to experience something to write about it accurately, but we do have to be able to realistically imagine ourselves and our reactions in that situation.

    @Cold: Every one of my novels has been set in a different place, and most of them are places I’ve never visited personally. It’s fun to take a free vacation to a new locale – without ever leaving the house!

  5. I’ve always liked what Bob Mayer adds to the saying write what you know. He says Write what you want to know or write what you feel strongly about.

    Thanks for your insight!

  6. I often feel that the only way to truly *know* a subject is to write about it.

  7. I tend NOT to like the research part, but sometimes well, I just hafta. I groan and go check the Internet (thank goodness for that–it makes researching that much easier and handier). And then I find I’m actually enjoying what I’m looking up (gasp!). LOL

  8. For the most part, I enjoy research. It’s a good excuse to curl up with an interesting book. And I do love acing my details. Gives a girl a feeling of satisfaction!

  9. I feel as though I’m doing a little bit of both. Writing what I learn and writing what I know, but there’s also something there that is neither learned or known. I write something that even comes to a surprise to me and I never even saw coming. I guess, that’s one of the reasons I write as a pantser because I’m surprised at some of the things my mind comes up with at the spur of the moment.

    By the way, awesome video and post, very informative and right to the point, which is just the way I like it! Write on!

    P.S. I added EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS now to my amazon wishlist and hopefully I’ll read it soon!

  10. I am a fierce supporter of the old adage, but I also believe that experimentation is vital towards the improvement of one’s compositional skills. Of course, the locale and characters in a story could be drawn upon from personal experience, but the manner is which the content is presented can modified and undergo countless iterations; therefore, similar content can be viewed in many different lights upon successful experimentation.

  11. @Vatche: East of the Mountains ended on a more depressing note than I would have liked, but overall it was one of my best reads of 2010.

    @Math: Can’t argue that. Nailing the details should never become a shackle to our creativity.

  12. @subcreator I write fantasy in part because that is what I know. It’s what I grew up reading and what I still read, and partly because of that I wouldn’t really know where to start writing a piece of literary fiction, even if it was set in my own back yard.

  13. As per Daniel Quinn, what you read, in large part, *is* what you know. If we’re avid readers of fantasy, then fantasy is what we know.

  14. I think it’s a matter of “knowing what you write.” I know stuff about my fantasy WiP that will never show up in the story, but is important. On the other hand, I still have quite a bit of research to do. Maybe that “Endless Ocean” is only the size of the Great Lakes after all…

  15. Writing ‘what you know’ at first sounds right, and then, after thinking about it for a while, it seems wrong. If you were an author and wrote this kind of phrase you’d probably be guilty of muddled writing, or writing without clarity. So what is it that that this poorly constructed phrase fails to accomplish?

    What if you were writing a mystery story about the poisoning of a Borgia pope and you knew little to nothing about the Italian Renaissance, or the structure, history, and traditions of the Catholic church? Would that story stand much of a chance of being successful? Obviously, writing about something you don’t know about is a bad idea. It strikes me, however, that this is a self-evident and shallow insight that’s unworthy of the reverent repetition this hackneyed phrase actually gets. There needs to be something more, therefore, something that is hinted at, but which nevertheless remains obscure in this phrase, “write what you know.”.

    We call such statements aphorisms. Aphorisms are commonly repeated truisms, They are convenient catch-phrases that demonstrate, or at least point to, some important universal truth. An aphorism that doesn’t point to a universal truth would just disappear from the common vernacular This one hangs around probably too much. So, what is the universal truth hidden within this mediocre aphorism? What kind of knowing is really required by a writer?

    I think it is this: Even more important than knowing the whats, wheres, whens, whos. of your tale, is knowing the whys. That is what every good story aims to do, explore ‘why’. “Essays are about ‘how’, fiction is about ‘why'”, is another aphorism. This is why fiction is necessarily somewhat metaphysical- meaning beyond or transcending the physical. We humans can’t do that directly, we can’t ever really explain this kind of ‘why’. We can only set up a kind of resonance with our words that somehow strikes a sweet spot in our audience or readership.

    Now, if we are to point our words to the discovery of the ‘why’ of, say, two people falling in love, that implies describing how they transcend the base urge to replicate, and the pleasures of the flesh, to reach a level of intimacy that provides far greater rewards. The writer is mining the imaginary experiences of two invented characters for its true value.

    This brings us to another aphorism: “Non fiction is about facts, fiction is about truth.” To accomplish such a prodigious task as to get at the truth of things, to help mine the raw ore of life’s experiences and smelt out was is truly valuable, the writer needs to know something about the needs and desires of the human heart, much of which is hidden. The writer needs to know something, perhaps a good deal, about what makes us sentient animals. The writer needs to know something about how we are, in one sense, all the same, and in another sense, all different. The writer needs to know a lot. Then the writer needs to know how to write about what he or she knows.

    All of that, of course, is fundamental to your success as you write your characters and your character-arcs. They have to intuitively ring true for a readership, or an audience. Your characters reactions to the challenges written into your second act, have to be credible and illuminating. They need to provide insight into what really matters in a life. That is what must define the discovery journey that occurs for you as you proceed to write your story. Revelation of character is what readers require from you to remain engaged in your story. To be a good writer then, you need to know enough about yourself so that you can transform it and project it on to your fictional characters.

    “Know Thyself”, as the ancient Greek aphorism commands. “Whatever you write”, goes another aphorism, “you write about yourself”.

  16. @Galadriel: Well put. If we limited ourselves to writing what we know, right now, at this moment, we would be putting some pretty severe restrictions on ourselves. But we can always decide what we want to write, based on endless possibilities, and then learn about it.

    @Lawrence: Great thoughts. Thanks, as always, for sharing. Another aphorism, “fiction is a lie that tells the truth,” is about as trite as it can get. But it also sums up the inherent importance of fiction. Without that searching for truth (and sometimes fiction isn’t so much about discovering the truth, as it is about searching for it), a story would be nothing more than a little bit of fluffy entertainment. In fact, I would argue that, without “truth,” fiction wouldn’t even remain entertaining for long.

  17. @K.M.Weiland: You sum up the dialectic very well when you write, “without “truth,” fiction wouldn’t even remain entertaining for long.” Fiction is predicted, in a sense, by non-fiction, the way light predicts dark. Fiction and non-fiction whirl around each other like binary stars. When you have facts without truth, the facts have little meaning, and, of course, you cannot have truth without facts. In dialectical terms that describes the union of opposites.

    That’s why we can contend that when you have life, without art, the meaning of life tends to elude us. When you read Madame Bovary, or listen to Mozart (or The Rolling Stones), or see Hamlet (or The Glass Menagerie) or watch The Godfather, the elusive meaning of life is about is somehow conveyed.

    When you also suggest that, “sometimes fiction isn’t so much about discovering the truth, as it is about searching for it”, I might even take it a bit further and state that fiction never can nail the truth. For the truth is beyond human capacity, and all we can do is approach it, usually from an obtuse angle.

    That humbling state of affairs acknowledged and paid due homage, however, I would add that art, and particularly the art of telling a story, is almost as essential for our species as food and water. Humans are prone to be off balance and art is one of the things that helps us regain balance, not only as an individual, but as a tribe, and society.

    Personally, I believe that what makes us human is the search for meaning and yet, engaged in that search, most writers come to understand that each word he or she writes betrays the truth, even as it might illuminate it. Writing is a Sisyphusian task to which each real writer is condemned, usually for life.

    Larry Kurnarsky Drscreenplay.com

  18. I agree. I find particular resonance in the idea that art isn’t meant to answer questions, only to ask them. I appreciate fiction with strong themes and passionate messages. But authors who feel they have to “preach” at their audiences are missing the point. The truth doesn’t mean as much to someone when it is given to him as it does when he has to find it for himself. Art is just a signpost along the road we’re all climbing in pursuit of truth.

  19. There is nothing wrong with preaching, from a pulpit, or writing an editorial, for a newspaper. There is nothing wrong with movies that have messages directed at the audience either. The movie Up and the movie, Saving Private Ryan, are both excellent films that have blatant messages. It’s just that having a message is not an excuse for not telling a good story. A message, even a message that involves life and death, does not let you off the hook to tell a story well. On its own, a message will not engage an audience for long.That’s why even Jesus resorted to storytelling to get his message to sink in. All the great spiritual traditions employ storytelling. The Bible. the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita are essentially stories with chapters and three acts.

    Rarely does an audience come to hear or see a message, or buy a book for a message. Someone is unlikely to say to himself, I need to be convinced that war is hell on earth, so I am going to watch Saving Private Ryan. They come, they normally think, to be entertained. We’ll let them believe that. Although that is not nearly the end of the story.

    The point is that the audience pays for their tickets and gets something out of the trip they are taken on, or they don’t. If that was a trip to confront reality or to take a vacation from reality, it really does not matter. You are not less of a human being for expecting to enjoy what you read or watch on a screen. What people enjoy reading or watching is a questions of moods, personal proclivities, and interests. Those can change from day to day. What matters is that the universal truths that function as story themes, engage the target readers or audience. What matters is that those themes are dressed in a human skin and become characters who embark on a journey that tests these characters for the story themes embedded in the first act. Then, in Act Two, the characters either pass or fail those tests. They live happily ever after, they don’t live happily ever after, or whatever shades between those poles; that is your Act Three.

    That’s about the whole of it. If you are a storyteller, the learning process for how to do that well usually lasts a lifetime. It matters not if your story is comedy of tragedy, or if it is about Dracula or Driving Miss. Daisy. Your story can be light or heavy. It can be full of sex and violence or contain none of that. If you provide ‘escapist entertainment’ that serves as a visceral vacation from the dull repetition, emotional pressures, or weighty responsibilities a person might face in their daily lives, how can that be a bad thing?

    Only if the escape the story seems to offer is an escape from the truth, does it matter, is that a cause for concern. That kind of problem cannot be solved through learning the craft of storytelling. Each of us, in our own way, must confront our own conscience and our souls. Art is never about escaping that kind of thing. As I see it, for a writer or film directer, this is the one unpardonable sin. Intellectual and emotional honesty are entry requirement for this profession, and lying is antithetical to good storytelling.

  20. I’m sorry you had trouble getting your comment to go through. Blogger, in its infinite wisdom, decided to flag it as spam until I could approve it.

    Some of my favorite stories have been ones that, on the surface, appear to be little more than escapist fluff. But the one thing they bear in common with their weighter brethren is that they all resonated with me on a deeper level, because they managed to offer a enduring and faithful representation of the human condition. I’ve always maintained that I’m a “forgiving critic.” I’m undeniably critical of poor writing, but if a story offers such a convincing truth that I can’t turn away, I’m willing to forgive any host of technical problems.

  21. I write about what I’m interested in. I love American history and I’ve read a lot about it. Writing about different time periods is fun, but I have to research them to get the details accurate.

  22. The subjects in which we’re interested are usually the subject about which we’re interested in learning more.

  23. The settings and situations in most of my stories come from what I know… but what I know is a result of what I’ve learned at some point in my life, either by experience or by research. There are specific details that I often have to research as I go along to ensure accuracy, so I guess my answer to your question would be “both”.

    Thought provoking post, thanks. 🙂

  24. Ultimately, I think the answer is “both” for all of us. We write what we know up to a point, then learn the rest so we can fill in the gaps.

  25. Knew a man once who wrote what he knew and really preached it. I didn’t like his book nor his writing worldview. Just saying.

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