Write What You Want To Know

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

It used to be the standard advice for new writers: Write what you know!

The driving idea behind that sentiment, of course, was that to write authentically, accurately, and with convincing detail you needed to stick with your own experience, for that is obviously what you know best.

Thus, for many decades, writers kept it close to home. Fitzgerald wrote about the Jazz Age as he was living it with Zelda. Hemingway wrote about World War I and its aftermath, then about other things he experienced—fishing, hunting, the Spanish Civil War. James Jones and Norman Mailer burst on the scene with novels about World War II. Harper Lee wrote about her own childhood.

I recall when the movie The Last Detail came out, based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan. There was a story about Ponicsan in the L.A. Times in which he talked about his decision to join the Navy at the age of 24. He did so because he wanted to expand his experience so he had something to write about.

I was a college student at the time and got a copy of the novel, read it and loved it. So I wrote a “wannabe a writer” letter to Ponicsan, care of his Hollywood agent. Mr. Ponicsan wrote me a nice letter in return, with advice and encouragement and one important caveat. The last line of his letter was, “Be prepared for an apprenticeship of years.” That was 21 years before my first novel came out.

But is Write what you know still sound advice? If you incorporate your special area of expertise in a natural fashion (say, as a lawyer writing legal thrillers), it’s fine. What’s not fine is if it’s taken as Write only what you know. That, it seems to me, destroys one of the great joys of being a writer—the ability to go anywhere, create any character, so long as you do enough research to make it all ring true.

Thus, the better advice, it seems to me, is Write what you WANT to know.

Toni Morrison

I recently came across a 2014 interview with Toni Morrison in which she said:

I may be wrong about this, but it seems as though so much fiction, particularly that by younger people, is very much about themselves. Love and death and stuff, but my love, my death, my this, my that. Everybody else is a light character in that play.

She continues:

When I taught creative writing at Princeton, [my students] had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends. Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Things way outside their camp. Imagine it, create it. Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through. I was always amazed at how effective that was. They were always out of the box when they were given license to imagine something wholly outside their existence.

What a refreshing counterpoint to sticking to “what you know.” Go outside the camp. Be reckless, be an explorer. Imagine it, then create it. Part of the imagining, of course, involved research.

As I look back on my own writing, I notice that at least half the time I’m writing about a woman protagonist.

How on earth did that happen?

Well, first of all, I find women more fascinating than men. I’m a simple creature. My wife is complex. I count our 37 years of marriage as not only an adventure in love, but also an engagement in a ton of research. Which is why Mrs. B is always the first to read my work. I need to get this stuff right.

When I came up with the concept for the Kit Shannon series, the publisher I pitched it to had the idea of teaming me up with one of its top-selling authors, Tracie Peterson. We got along famously. We brainstormed the plots and I wrote the first drafts. Tracie went over the drafts and tweaked and added more of what a woman would have thought, spoken, noticed. By the time we finished the third book, I felt I had inside me the voice we’d developed together. I was then able to go on and do three more of these novels on my own.

Which may have been the most enjoyable part of my career. I loved living through Kit Shannon, even though I have never been a woman living in 1903 Los Angeles. (Not many of us have, I venture to say.)

So follow Toni Morrison’s advice. Don’t be afraid to go outside your camp. It’s one of the great pleasures of writing fiction.

So what do you think of that old chestnut, Write what you know?

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25 thoughts on “Write What You Want To Know

  1. Great post, and I agree. Write what you want to know. And I would add, write who you want to be, at least for awhile. (grin)

    As for research, I’ve found that maybe 10% of Given Story is about one or more events in one or more locations. The rest of the story is about the characters’ reactions to those events.

    My own “heaviest” research, strictly to provide layers of authenticity, is about any events or locations with which I’m not already intimately familiar. But the characters themselves, their actions and reactions, and what happens as a result are from the imagination.

  2. I’ve always thought of it as “Write what you can learn” because writing about my life …. yawn. Happy childhood, stable marriage (49 years this August), decent kids.

    But one thing that I believe all authors draw on is their emotions. We put our characters in situations we may never have experienced, but we know what it feels like to be tired, afraid, happy, and we can move those emotional reactions to our characters.

  3. Write what you know is a good starting point, but eventually you’ll run out of material. I wrote my first published book because I couldn’t understand what would make a mother abandon her child. It stretched my perspective and gave me a new empathy.
    Good post!

  4. I like to read horror novels. “Write what you know”? Gosh, I hope that many authors don’t dine with vampires and battle against cryptozoological creatures.

    I think the write-what-you-know advice was more relevant before the Internet. Now it’s a lot easier to sit on a sofa in Virginia while you learn about shop merchants in Beijing.

  5. Ditto all of the above~ write what you know is more than autobiography~ if you’ve researched it, you know (a bit), about it… If you’ve experienced with or through observing others, you know (a little), about it as well~
    I have four sons, but from watching my dad and sister interact over the years, have found I have a “knack” for writing father-daughter songs, and sometimes even songs and stories from a female perspective…

  6. I like your sentence, “If you incorporate your special area of expertise in a natural fashion (say, as a lawyer writing legal thrillers), it’s fine.”

    You’ve incorporated your legal expertise in your Kit Shannon and Ty Buchanon series. Using a character or situation where the writer has expertise provides a link to authenticity, even when the concept, premise, and setting is new and needs lots of research.

    Thanks for a great post, Jim.

    • Thanks, Steve. The Kit series was historical, so I did a ton of research on that era. Which is really the key to this whole discussion. Dig in and find out what you need to know and do your best to get it right.

  7. I think that’s the most destructive thing about the “cultural appropriation” movement. No longer are Americans allowed to write about anything but their personal sub-class of America.
    I wrote a short story about an autistic girl on Mars in a combat suit. People were furious that a “normie” would dare write about an autistic person. Never mind that I researched it for weeks beforehand and found some autism spectrum people to talk to. And the people giving me flak never read the story in the first place. They just objected to the idea of a “normie” writing a story like that.

    • Kessie. I sympathize. I get the opposite sentiment. Because I’m not a “normie” people only want me to write about me. I hate that and always hated that. But a few years ago I buckled and did it, shopped it last year, found out I got age categories all mixed up, and now have stopped. And guess what, people’s interest in my writing have stopped now, too.

    • There’s also the danger of reverse stereotyping, i.e., asserting that all members of a group experience life the same way. That’s obviously not true and has the potential to rob fiction of richness and complexity.

  8. I think about write-what-you-know a lot. I think there is a bit of merit in it; like Terry says, emotional what you know. I will can’t write about romance or romantic love because I’ve never experienced it. On the other hand, I infuse all my stories with sibling/friend love because I know that. I also will never be able to write about body-shaming or the obsession to make yourself look perfect because I could never experience that. However, I can write about trying to be perfect in manner and outlook.

  9. I think the best way to answer this question is to imagine the author as an actor, specifically, a method actor. You can write convincingly about how a young prince reacts when his father is assassinated despite your lack of royal blood. We’ve all experienced the loss of a loved one, and we can channel those same feelings into our writing.

    So we can write what we don’t know by building on what we do know.

    • Bingo. I was going to write exactly this… except probably not as concisely, so I’ll just nod and agree emphatically.

      • Even though I never acted or took an acting–though I desperately want to–I feel the exact same way. Actors learn about scenes, emotion, conflict, and all the good stuff. I know that from research.

  10. I love learning new things. I do the research and then write using the new knowledge, flavoring it with my own past experiences.

  11. I shared this with Darryl, a friend, on his Facebook page. He was appreciative.

    Did you read, or watch, LAST FLAG FLYING? (It’s a “spiritual sequel” to THE LAST DETAIL.)

  12. Well, I was half-right. It was a long apprenticeship, but I’m glad you continued to show up. I can remember only two books–one a biographical novel, one a true crime novel–that made me do research, and even then I brought to them my range of experience. I did, however, write two books as a woman–Anne Argula–in a genre whose rules I never knew. All the best, kid.

    • Darryl, I’m so glad you stopped by! I wrote you a follow-up letter after I was published, and you again wrote back. That long apprenticeship included a 10-year-span when I was going to law school, practicing, etc., because I’d been told in college you can’t really learn to write (I was in a workshop with Raymond Carver, no less) and I believed it. Then I realized I had to try. So I did … and here I am.

      BTW, I picked up Homicide My Own (by “Anne Argula”) in Portland years ago, because I knew it was you.

  13. Vindication. My friends, and my publisher, have told me I’m nutzo writing about cultures I know nothing about.

    While I’m doing my current series, I am also writing about a young woman whose family were assassins in the old country. The family still retains the secret formulas and tactics, all documented and safely hidden away in American vaults and secret places.

    Her parents are missionaries in South America, and she herself has a strong faith in Christ. But, an American intelligence agency, one she’s worked with before, wants her to kill someone. Someone big, important. Someone who is a threat to the entire world.

    Since I know nothing about any of it, of course I’ll write it. Of course I’ll stumble my way through it.

  14. First: “I find women more fascinating than men.” I’m the polar opposite. I’m much more fascinated with writing men so I’m curious if this is a gender thing.

    RE: “Write what you know.” I don’t think this is bad if you have an interesting life from which to draw. Personally, I find little inspiration in my life as an Administrative Assistant (unless maybe I was a serial killer by night or something!) 😎 and although I’ve occasionally pondered it, I’ve never been able to think of a way to portray it as anything but dull. Not hot seller material.

    However, I LOVE and plan to adopt your variation of ‘Write what you WANT to know.’ That is utterly perfect for me and suits not just my writing but my entire life because there are lots of things I wanna know.

  15. Hi Mr. Bell,

    Your article was fascinating. I am a 68 year old female and my protagonist is a 30 year old Soviet defector! In the beginning I knew nothing about how he would think or feel, but he was going to be my POV character. Through research and listening to my inner feelings I now know him. I’m glad I did not pay attention to the phrase “Write what you know.”

    • listening to my inner feelings

      That’s really the key, Mary. We have the power of empathy, which unites us. So put yourself in that situation and ask how you would feel, and expand upon that.

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