Reader Friday: Experience

“A writer need not devour a whole sheep in order to know what mutton tastes like, but he must at least eat a chop. Unless he gets his facts right, his imagination will lead him into all kinds of nonsense, and the facts he is most likely to get right are the facts of his own experience.”
— W. Somerset Maugham

How much of your writing comes from your experience? Do you tend to write what you know? Or do you write what you need to know?

12 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Experience

  1. If I wrote only what I know, I could write a paragraph and be done for life. 😎 I do suppose there is some truth to that in the sense that we bring our emotional experiences to bear on the page that to some degree coincide with our character’s, even if it’s not the same exact situation. Likewise, I’m sure we all probably tend to focus on life situations that we feel the most strongly about & ignore others that don’t touch us.

    But writing is also exploration. Which means learning what we don’t know. Which is why writing a book is such a lengthy process.

  2. Perhaps I should write a thriller based in the Kansas City Barbecue competitions, Think of all the research I would need…

  3. If we’ve have observed and interacted with people in meaningful ways, we know great deal more than we think we know, and that knowledge comes through in our characters. How they think and talk and move seems real to the reader.

    We can learn about poisons or guns or the judicial system or any other “technical” knowledge we need to fulfill the needs of our plots, but it’s a deep and often subconscious knowledge about people that helps us to write great stories.

  4. Well, literally speaking, regarding food, I’d say yes, one has to really taste that mutton chop. For my novel Greylock my character loved to drink Russian Caravan tea and I began drinking it when writing. I love it now too. But my character was also a classical pianist and I cannot play at all and knew nothing about music. So, research and study on pianists, symphonies and concert performance and even composing music was an exciting dive into a new world for me. My character taught me a lot.

  5. I notice that when I write what I know, I tend to write without effort. It’s when I try to write of situations outside my general knowledge, I get stumped. The bad part about that is I don’t like to research much because I’m lazy in that department. If I can’t find information I’m looking for rather quickly, I tend to change direction and get back on track with writing what I know.

  6. Is all of the above a good answer? I write what I know, but I also research like crazy. And I make stuff up. It all depends. I had a fairly sheltered childhood, and other than some amazing vacations and one trip to the Super Bowl, I’d have to say my adult life is pretty standard. Writing only what I know would be severely limiting.

    Someone said (I can’t find the reference online), “Don’t write what you know, but rather, write what you want to know.” I like that sentiment.

  7. My first novel–accepted but not yet released–was based on the experiences of others who have had an encounter with a particular kind of cryptid creature. The background of the story was based on my living in Oklahoma for a few years. After the earthquake era.

    The one question I have about Oklahoma is, will it split off and fall into the ocean?

  8. I want to meet the writer who writes about serial killers who admits to being an actual serial killer. (Although I can see this premise for a comedy.)

  9. I agree w above and think all authors draw on both.
    My family, friends, and research provide the insider knowledge of law, big business, crime, and police work that are key to my stories, but it is the people, experiences, and emotion of 25 years working in busy, inner city ERs that are at their heart.
    (I’ll take an order of the manchurian brisket to go ?)

  10. I have to start with something that really happened. Then I invent the motives, complications, and outcomes from there. It’s the only way I can write. I just worry that I’ll be accused of not changing the protagonist enough.

    Do other people write this way?

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