Write What You Know? Don't You Dare!

Write What You Know? Don’t You Dare!

I admit I always laugh in my sleeve when I hear an author proclaiming you must write what you know. This tidbit of advice is often touted as a cardinal rule of writing, with the inherent implication being that if you aren’t

1) a brilliant scientist/mathematician/geologist/linguist/ tactician/psychologist

or

2) an uber-wealthy jetsetter with the time and money to fly all over the place and experience everything possible

then you really don’t have any business writing books.

Fiction Is About What You Don’t Know

Whoever came up with this rule obviously didn’t credit imagination too much. In fact, it would seem said person probably didn’t have much imagination. Think about it. Fiction, at its very essence, is all about what we don’t know. William Styron said,

Isn’t all art a search for an answer to a question which can’t even be spoken?

I have little to no interest in writing about the things I know. Not only would that curb my pool of writing resources, it would also limit me to regurgitating my life.

And that would get pretty boring pretty fast. If I wrote only about what I know, all my stories would end up being about twenty-somethings who work at their desks eight hours a day, five days a week, spend Saturday mornings in bed reading, and encounter adventure and excitement mostly through their own klutziness and occasional stupidity. Not exactly what you had in mind for your next beach read, is it? Me neither.

Why You Shouldn’t Write What You Know

I write about places I’ve never been, cultures I’ve never experienced, people I’ll never meet. The last time I checked, gunslingers, crusading knights, and dragons weren’t offering interview appointments. Neither can I afford to globetrot my way to Syria, Chicago, London, Nigeria, and points beyond. (We won’t even mention the fact that one of those brilliant scientist people I mentioned in the first paragraph have yet to perfect a time machine that would send me back to the Middle Ages or the Roaring Twenties.)

Dreamlander NIEA FinalistBut I’ll tell you a secret: I like it this way. Writing novels gives me the opportunity to experience what I don’t know. If I lived in Chicago, I doubt I would have had any interest in writing about it in my fantasy novel Dreamlander. But because I’ve never been to Chicago—every moment spent researching these things was an adventure.

Why You Should Write What You Know

If fiction is about answering questions, then I certainly have no need to rehash my own life on the page. I live that everyday; the answers are right in front of me. I’d much rather experience the untouchable.

Now, that said, let me do a major 180 and mention that I emphatically believe we should all write what we know. (Gotcha, didn’t I?)

Knowing your subject matter is vital. But who says you can’t know it vicariously? That’s where research comes into play. If I wrote about the 12th-century Kingdom of Jerusalem and referred to all the natives as Israelis, I would promptly pop any knowledgeable reader’s bubble of disbelief and destroy my credibility as a writer. But, if I do my research, if I read the books, study the maps, and interview the experts, I’ll be able to write both what I know—and what I don’t.

Tell me your opinion: Have you chosen to write what you know–or what you don’t–in your latest story?

Write What You Know? Don't You Dare!

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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. This afternoon, one of my passive-aggressive cats had a temper tantrum and peed all over the laundry room floor.

    That’s what I know. It would make a great novel, wouldn’t it?!

    I never would’ve known you hadn’t been to Chicago! I was truly envying your first-hand research only to discover here and now that you had to do the same thing I have to do. No plane tickets involved.

    You did a great job . . .

  2. Why on earth did I get printed twice???

  3. http://www.kmweiland.com says

    Must be because you’re special!

    And, thanks – envying my “first-hand research” is one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten!

  4. If I were to “write what I know”, it’d be all about software testing for quality purposes. I think I can make that exciting for about half a page – if I *really* stretch my imagination. 🙂

  5. Well, you never know! At any rate, stretching the imagination is always a good thing!

  6. I love the in-depth research that you have done for your stories.You are a great student of your work.

  7. Thanks so much. Research is easily one of my favorite parts of writing.

  8. I must say I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the research you’ve done for your books.

    If people only wrote what they knew the world would be a pretty dumb place. It’s through your research you learn about all kinds of different subjects.

  9. Ah, thanks. You’re sweet!

    Books put the world at your fingertips. You can go anywhere, be anybody – without ever leaving the comfort of your home. A library is a wide-open horizon.

  10. “Think what you don’t know and write when you have known it”
    A quote made by mighty me this very second

  11. Exactly right, Katie. Imagination is the first undoing of that trite advice. Why, I may have written something similar not long ago… http://www.eduardosuastegui.com/write-with-your-heart/

  12. Obviously a lot of sense here, however i think personally that when people teach this rule they dont mean it in terms of physical subject matter. It means bring your personal experience to your narrative. Tolkein didn’t write about his experiences of.world war one, but he used the horrors he had seen to evoke the ‘dead marhes’, and clearly creates the relationship between Frodo and Sam upon the notions of an officer and his batman. So i dont believe its really ‘sticking to what you know’ to provide safe subject matter, its about applying what you know to subject matter to create a geniune sense of immersion and believability to hook readers in.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is totally true. The trouble is that many writers see the “write what you know” advice and believe it applies to their physical or life experiences. Which, of course, it doesn’t have to at all.

  13. Wonderful article. The advice to write what you know never made sense to me. After all, most of us know algebra problems and office work, and if we wrote strictly about that, the publishing industry would be very quickly surfeited with similar plot lines! Readers want to read what stimulates their imagination–and the same-old just doesn’t do that. We travel to new lands, meet new people, read books, because God’s world is *so* much bigger than just our little corner. It would be narrow-minded to think that we can only write what we know. He’s made us to grow, to discover, and to rejoice in all things new.

    And I’m so glad I’m not the only one who decided to write without travelling to all the places I’m writing about. 😀

    ~Schuyler

  14. This makes me so glad to get started on my story. I love research and agree that between discovery and learning, there is nothing more exciting when you cannot afford to see it all for yourself. And let’s be honest, if we were actually going where we research would we really get to see and do all that we can research? Probably not and that is what makes research a treat.

  15. thomas h cullen says

    The Troka System. The resource. The Overseers. Krenok’s motivation. Croyan’s plan of action – A final politics and situation, in a final of settings.

    Just some years back, I would’ve absolutely never imagined being capable of this.

    For the rest of my life, I’m grateful to nature for Croyan and Mariel.

  16. My first two books were based on personal experiences so you could argue that I wrote about what I knew. The one I’m working on now isn’t based on any experiences but I have done my homework or so I’d like to think. Early feedback states that I’m on the right track.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes it *is* fun to write what we’re intimately familiar with. My latest WIP was set here in my hometown (albeit back in the 1920s), and I had an absolute blast writing about places I’ve known all my life.

  17. to me writing what I do not know is the fun part. I love getting lost in my make believe world of emotions. When I can feel my protagonists heart beat. Then when I get a friend to read my story and they need a Kleenex to wipe tears.

  18. I write what I know. I can’t help it. Even when I write fantasy, the hard parts of my life seep into the story. My family has a genetic cancer syndrome and a genetic joint disorder. Between the two, I’ve known a lot of sickness and death in my family, and myself (lucky me, I got them both). So every one of my stories has a character who has to deal with illness and death, either themself, or in a close relative or friend. It’s what I know, and I can’t imagine life without it.

    But I do love getting outside of my own life. With two young kids filling my hours, not a single one of my protagonists is a parent– this is supposed to be an escape! So they’re busy traveling to fantasy worlds with the help of fairy godfathers, and reuniting with their long dead moms in their dreams (It was fun to see that parallel in Dreamlander).

    So far, everything I’ve written has been set, at least partially, somewhere I’ve lived, but that’s not hard with two countries, two provinces, two states, and two coasts under my belt. But while Anadaria may be straight from my imagination, it’s based on Elizabethan England, and I’ve had to do a lot of research to make sure the customs and time period, and most importantly, the clothing, have the right feel, though the geography and history differ.

    I may write what I know, but I have lots of varied interests and love to learn, so I’ve got lots of material to work with. I wouldn’t chose to include something in a story unless I already had enough of a fascination with the time period, place, or profession to have done large amounts of curiosity-driven research. So in that sense, for me anyway, it’s not as much writing what I know, but writing what I love.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It *is* fun to write what we know sometimes. My last WIP was set in my hometown. I had a blast writing about places I knew and letting the character speak in a vernacular that’s just like mine.

    • thomas h cullen says

      I’m childless, yet Croyan’s always been a parent. What you wrote was deep, and in this way specifically prompted me to think about The Representative.

  19. Alberto Leal says

    I write about mountain-elves, wood-elves lighthouse caretakers and the North-Pole. All this without much research. It’s hard to find mountain-elves, they just don’t talk to people

  20. Love it! Surely you could get one to give you an interview. Now that would make for an interseting story. 🙂

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