Write What You Know

By John Gilstrap

Of all the instructional clichés, I think that “Write What You Know” discourages more new writers than any other. It’s a particularly pernicious thing to say to students, who tend to take such things more literally, but it’s also misleading for adults.

So here’s the Gilstrap version of that advice: Unless you live one hell of a life, stay away from what you know.

Who wants to read about commuting to and from a job, working hard and loving a family who loves you back? I can’t imagine a more boring story. (Actually, I can. The daily diary of a novelist: Got up this morning. Made stuff up. Went to bed.)

Looking at my own fiction, I’ve never: killed anyone; escaped from prison; blown up a chemical weapons facility (came close, though); survived a plane crash; or rescued a hostage. I like to think that I make my characters’ experience real enough for readers, but there’s no way I can say that I wrote those stories as something I “know.”

I have a hunch that the person who first launched the cliché actually meant something closer to, “Write From Your Heart.” Or maybe, “Write So It Feels Real.” I can live with those. To me, it’s about extrapolating emotion.

It’s about imagination. It’s about doing what most of us started doing as children, and then never grew out of: role playing. If you’ve loved people, how hard is it to imagine what it would be like to lose them?

I’ve never been in a knife fight, but I’ve been frightened and I’ve cut my hand slicing a bagel. If I’m writing from the point of view of the attackee, I’ve got everything I need for a convincing scene. (If I’m portraying the attacker, on the other hand, I have some research to do regarding fighting technique.)

I’ve taught writing seminars at the high school and college level where “Write What You Know” has actually stymied creativity. “Does that mean we can only write about school?” students ask. “I want to write about a serial killer.”

Then write the story, I tell them. If there’s a story in your soul pounding to come out, then write the damn thing down. Get it off your chest and out of your brain. Just do enough research to make it convincing. And make me love your protagonist from within. Imagine the character fully enough that I can see what he sees and feel what he feels.

It’s about the—forgive me—Human Condition. As a writer, your job is to pull me in.

I got it! The instructional cliché should be: “Write What You Understand.”

15 thoughts on “Write What You Know

  1. “Write what you know” can also stymie people who lead adventurous lives that other people would like to read about. I had climbed to 18,000 feet in the Himalayas, hitchhiked illegally across Tibet when it first opened to independent travelers, and ran away to live in Istanbul all before I was 23. I have been in Turkey 20 years. “Write what you know” at my age now begs the questions “can we ever truly know?”

    For me, while writing (I write fantasy-realist fiction set in modern Istanbul), the plots involve magical beings, which I can’t know, but my characters eat food that I love and enjoy views and thoughts that I do.

    My main character’s father puts the kitchen towel on his shoulder as he cuts up fruit, just like my husband does. She would rather lie on the dock and draw than practice magic. She draws according to the theory my mother always explained to me (draw what you want to see).

    These are things I know and are my own. It is only by putting myself, what I know, in my writing that it becomes in anyway interesting.

  2. Firstly, though I am not a thriller writer, I felt inspired by the authors of this blog to start my next romantic novel with a thriller-like Chapter 1. My editor said I did the right thing. Cheers!
    I love to read this particular post. I am now writing something I knew nothing about. Set in places I had never visited (Bangkok and China) and characters that are everything I am not (a Chinese military general, a Chinese surgeon and a Thai concert pianist), doing everything I haven’t done. That is why I love the research part of writing. However, instead of relying on imagination only, I do try to learn about my characters’ experiences as much as possible. So I moved to Bangkok, stood in Operating Rooms a dozen times, travelled with a concert pianist, and sat in a tank. The fun part is to meet people I would otherwise never meet and do things I wouldn’t normally do. I enjoy this process of writing and creating an interesting personal life as well.

    I must say that my last two non-ficton books were about my personal adventures in Asia. These books made me a published writer!

  3. When I do a class, I always say “Write what you feel” – the real emotions, the ones that scare you… just in a story about a giant asteroid that’s gonna smack Earth.

    – Bill

  4. I tend to say, write what you’re interested in. You can always research it.

    That said, I’m often puzzled by what people choose to write about. I have a friend who was a military brat, served in the Navy, traveled the world… then writes Christian mysteries about a retired cop living in the north woods. Go figure. All that military arcana wasted.

  5. Great advice, John. Obviously, “write what you know” goes right out the window with science fiction, fantasy, horror, and so many other genres. Your post should be required reading for all new writers.

  6. Excellent post, John. I usually advise, Write who you are — and be what you write about. As you point out in the bagel example, we have those capacities inside us, and can imagine them outward.

    I also think one of the wonderful things about writing is that you can write to discover what you NEED to know. Stretching our own wings is a growth process (or should be).

    Finally, writing thrillers is, for me, a way to know more stuff, via research and so forth. Hands on things.

  7. I started writing when I was eight, and I can see the merit of the “write what you know.” That being said, I also think the advice is worded over simplistically and creates confusion and misintepretation. Plus there are far too many writers looking for rules to tell them how to get published.

    The toughest part about being a child to adult writer is that the lack of life experience comes into play in a big way. Imagine writing a story that has a large portion of the scenes set in a hospital emergency room, and your only experience is a doctor’s office. You call the nurses clerks and have them do vague things like “push buttons” on a phone. Or having a 18-year new hire on his first day write reports for the vice president of a large company. Or having a guy jump out of an airplane without a parachute and do a perfect three-point landing, landing on the ground unharmed (a three-point landing means he landed on his head, and we won’t even discuss the lack of parachute).

    That’s the kind of stuff I think the advice targets. It’s dumb stuff that we don’t even think about because we’ve absorbed it along the way–but to someone who has never experienced it, it becomes a big story problem. It’s very hard building out on the things we don’t know when we start with things that don’t give it a strong foundation.

    Hmm, my word verfication is “unhot.”

    By the way, do you remember me? I met you a few years ago in N VA–I had a Civil War Thriller.

  8. I like Stephen King’s take on “write what you know.” There’s always something a story can use that you “know,” whether you’re writing a police procedural or about intergalactic warfare.

    His example: Say you’re a butcher. Make one of the characters a butcher. or his father was a butcher. or a scene takes place in a butcher shop. Some little thing that will lend enough realism to help the reader look more favorably upon the occasional whopper you may have to hit him with.

    Re: The daily diary of a novelist (Got up this morning. Made stuff up. Went to bed) reminds me of an old Far Side cartoon. It shows a cave man’s daily planner. Every page says, “Kill something and eat it.”

  9. Thanks John – I couldn’t agree more. I remember being told ‘write what you know’ and it left me with a blank page. Now I write whatever I want to write – whatever I feel compelled to write and I know that as long as I stay true to who I am the page will get written (and so, I might add, will the book!).

  10. I always write what I know. Or that is, what I know I made up. As long as the research is good and the writing is better, people will believe you know it as a matter of experience rather than just a story about our imaginary friends.

    Google Maps and Wikipedia…closest things to HitchHikers Guide to Galaxy we’re gonna get in this generation.

  11. If I wrote what I knew I’d end up in prison….or dead and dismembered in a dumpster being eaten by ravens.

  12. KatieK, it’s those little details that make all the difference when creating characters that seem real to the reader. I certainly see why you write the fantasy-realist fiction that you do. Lord knows there’s no drama to mine from hitchhiking illegally across Tibet and running away to Turkey . . . 🙂

    JSB, great point about discovering what you need to know. That opens the window to the psychotherapeutic side of writing. “No, really. That female character smoked a cigar in the train tunnel simply because she craved the nicotine hit . . .”

    Garridon: I do remember! Howya been?

    Thanks for all the input, folks!

  13. I remember that Far Side cartoon. And I like your alternative versions of write what you know. There are many things I’d rather not know first-hand but love to read / write about.

  14. Coincidentally, just last night I was reading Stephen King’s “On Writing, Chapter 13 in the second half, which is on Write What You Know!

    Thanks for cementing the concept in my mind.

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