Should You Write What You Know?

Writing Apparatus

 

They say to write what you know, but should you? We’ve all heard this writing advice. But what if you’re writing a far-out story, like fantasy or science fiction? In this post, we’ll explore what it truly means to write what you know. It could mean something different than you think.

 

What does it mean?
Most people think writing what you know is about writing situations that you’ve personally been in. An example might be writing about a person going through financial struggles if you have yourself at one point. Another example might be to write about a protagonist whose parents are divorcing, if your parents have. The benefits to writing in this literal fashion is that you know exactly how the character feels. You’re able to accurately portray the character’s emotions via your experience. Even though some of the experiences weren’t pleasant to live through, it provided you with a well of material to work with.

 

The opposite advice
It’s much less common, but there’s also advice telling you to write what you don’t know…on purpose.Β These people promote that it brings out the element of spontaneity in your story. It’s said that you can explore much more creatively outside the parameters of your own experience. If you want to stretch as a writer into unknown territory, this might be the way to go. The word of caution with this method is to be careful to not come across as painfully ignorant about the topic you’re writing about. You’ll need to do at least some research to make sure you’re within the ballpark of accuracy.

 

Writing what you know in a fantasy world
What about if you’re writing a fantasy, sci-fi, or any other out-there storyline in which you have no direct experience? You probably haven’t fallen down a rabbit hole to Wonderland recently. Odds are, you won’t fly on a magic carpet over an Arabian city. So how do you write what you know in these types of fantastical settings? The key lies in writing what you know regarding themes and not necessarily setting. Let’s take Peter Pan, for example. Think of the themes in that story. Some that come to mind are abandonment, fear of being alone, vindication, love, seeking companionship, growing up, etc. I’d be surprised if anyone reading this hasn’t felt one of those in the past month. In a recent post, we also talked about the themes in The Lord of the Rings. Now, you might say I’m silly, that Peter Pan is just a story about green tights, fairies, and pirates. Is it really? Think about it.

 

Conclusion
So while you may not be able to directly relate or have experienced every element of your story, you can always relate to the core theme of it. In that regard, pour yourself into that aspect, showing the framework of your fantastical story through the emotions of your very self.

 

 

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Image courtesy of Kaushik Narasimhan via Flickr, Creative Commons.

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47 thoughts on “Should You Write What You Know?”

  1. Pretty much spot on, in my opinion. Theme is a critical thing to writing, even if it’s a popcorn action-adventure piece, and it’s to a writer’s benefit to play to his/her knowledge and familiarity with the themes he wants to explore.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the tips! I usually try to blend what I do and what I don’t know, because I find the familiar easiest to start with but then I like to challenge myself by branching out a bit. Have never really tackled the sci-fi world, but definitely want to give it a shot!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Loved this post! Also, I kind of laughed when I opened WordPress and saw this post because I just finished writing a post on this exact topic a couple days ago (to be posted tomorrow) and then I saw your post and I thought it was great πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think Stephen King is right when he says if writers only wrote about what they knew there wouldn’t be any good books. I’ve always considered that quote/advice flawed in its perception. I think of it as meaning: experience as much as you can, as often as you can.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thought-provoking post – I think writing what you know does mean the feelings and emotions that you know. Besides if we dream about strange new worlds, we do know them. We don’t have to visit them. Hope that makes sense ; )

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think I’ve written about what I know too much in the past, and I’ve been learning how to break out of my shell. If we only wrote about what we knew, I feel that our writing development would be quite limited. If I want to grow as a writer, I have to branch out, write about things I don’t know (of which there are many), and try to relate to new topics.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Didn’t mean to be so oblique. So far, in my series, I’ve managed to “break” just about every rule or strong recommendation I’ve come across – from holding off on providing the name of my main character until around the middle part of the first book through almost no use of dialogue in the same book.

        And, so far, the entire series is completely out of my sphere of knowledge. ::Grins:: I’ve been literally writing from the seat of my pants, and it continues to hang together. Though, there may be a theme or two I haven’t teased out that stems from personal knowledge, the characters are the unifying factor for these stories.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Your posts are always so organized, Ryan. Always easy to read.

    I wanted to add that another problem with writing what you know is that you will end up writing yourself. There is a very real danger of making all your characters cut-out pieces of you!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great I came across this blog, Ryan, as it saves me the effort to write exactly the same thing, only worse. Thanks for that! I recently had a sort of argument with a friend, an author, who insisted that we really DO have to write about what we know. In the course of the discussion, it turned out that she puts in that category personal experiences, insights from in-depth research, and self-knowledge. Following my reference to King (though I didn’t quote him, on purpose), she said that he writes about his nightmares and that he’s a man who really, really knows his nightmares well. I stopped there, I didn’t want to embarrass her. πŸ™‚
    Theme knowledge is indeed central, especially in the fantasy world which I also inhabit. The rest is imagination and some plausibility.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Ryan, thanks for following us. I get very tired of writing advice like “write what you know” (and lots of other technical advice).. I’m all for going where you don’t know. The truth or otherwise of your writing comes from something deeper than factual accuracy. It comes from your observation of people and your ability to reflect on life.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Good post. I’ll repost this one .
    For me it comes down to some conscious and unconscious decisions. I was/am writing science fiction, so I’m expected to get most of the science and maths at least reasonably correct. But because i am writing science FICTION, that means that I can simply get out of a hole by having something invested to deal with it.
    For example, in my book anti-grav is invented. I didn’t have to go into the physics of it or come up with a working model, I just had my characters assume that it worked and was a mature enough technology that now it was available for individual transport.
    When designing some of the craft, I did enough maths to confirm that it wasn’t outright impossible. I didn’t care if we could do it today, just that it wasn’t impossible for it to ever be possible.
    In the next book, interstellar travel still isn’t FTL (faster than light) but it gets a lot closer to the speed of light then is currently possible. How? A previously unknown side effect of exotic matter. Do I know anything about particle physics and exotic matter? Not really. I just had to study enough to convince myself that it wasn’t impossible. And even if it is proven to be impossible, future generations should still be able to read and enjoy, just like we can read and enjoy Jules Vern.
    As I had someone in my first book that had a psychological condition and wanted to handle that correctly, I gave copies of the scenes to someone who did know and asked the same thing. Is what I’ve done impossible? In the end, I tweaked one of the scenes in light of advise, but that’s OK too.
    I suppose what I am saying is that you have to pick your battles. If you are writing a detailed scene of the ins and outs of hacking into a governmental secure site, talk to someone who knows what they are talking about. If you are writing a fantasy book and you are describing a dragon, don’t talk to a aeronautical engineer. Dragons are supposed to be impossible. that’s the magic of dragons.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Interesting to come across this just now! Last weekend I shared a bit of my new blogging experiences with my mother, telling her I was writing posts about growing up with a dad who was a sawyer (thus my blog name: A Sawyer’s Daughter.) as well as my views and thoughts on a whole range of topics. She said to me ‘write what you know’ and I don’t know that I’d ever heard that before.

    Anyway, good read and thanks for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I believe we are what we write. We take our experiences and what we read and see, filter it through our imagination, and create an original and unique result. At this point in the progression of civilization, I believe there is no such thing as original thought as we build on the memories of our ancestors. BTW I loved the way you interpreted ‘write what you know’. Keep on writing.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. As a novice, writing what I know was always where I was going to start so that I could concentrate on learning the craft πŸ™‚ I think when the process becomes less conscious, I will delve into unknown territory πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  14. The long version: http://northofandover.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/learning-to-write-and-the-law-of-write-what-you-know/

    The short version: The emotions resulting from the loss of a loved one are the same whether those involved are real people or characters in a medieval-ish fantasy novel. The idea that no one can write such novels because no one has ever actually BEEN a character in a medieval-ish fantasy setting is ridiculous. There would also be far fewer steamy romances and spy novels and classic rags-to-riches stories if authors were limited to writing about what they know from direct personal experience. People who push such a literal and limited interpretation of “Write what you know” are a menace to fiction and must be stopped. πŸ™‚

    Like

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