Write what you know, right?

I keep coming across this phrase – write what you know. When I have come face to face with this saying in the past I have always thought that if this were so many pieces of literature would not exist. Yet now, when I am being taken into new territory within my novel, I find myself wondering about the validity of my setting. The date is August 3rd, 1914 and Germany has just declared war on France. I have thankfully never survived war, and know very little about it, so what am I doing writing about it, I ask myself.

I am not following the men to war, I am staying home, pregnant, waiting. I will suffer loss and anguish, and these are things I do know about. When I look back at all that I have wrote, some have been very familiar, others not so, but it is always the responses and emotions that are true.

The other day my three year old daughter told me that when we buy a new TV she wants one without a screen so that she can go into the Wizard of Oz. I was stunned by this statement, amazed at how vivid the movie is for her, even though is it so far from her reality. This brings me back to the emotions within the movie: the unknown, discovery, fear, the need for safety and home – things that are all very real for a three year old loosening her ties to mama and dada. She empathizes with Dorothy, and I think this is what counts in then end – empathy.

I realized that writing is not only about what we do know, sometimes it is about what we don’t know, but it is also about discovery.

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21 thoughts on “Write what you know, right?

  1. That “write what you know” advice stumped me at first because I took it literally. But you hit on what I think is the deeper meaning of that advice.

    You can only write about the emotions you’ve felt, the thoughts you’ve pondered, the feelings you’ve experienced, if you want your writing to ring true.

  2. Yes, yes, yes! You have to write about what you don’t know. This is how you grow. (And it’s more interesting.) If you’re fascinated by a certain period of history or a place you’ve never been, you can do the research, absorb it inwardly and then you do know it. Writing about it helps you know it even better. But you’re right about the emotional truth too. When Thackeray was writing Henry Esmond he set it 150 years before his own time and wrote it in 17th century prose but many people (including himself) considered it his best work because there is so much of his own experience in it.

    • “This is how you grow. ” Thank you, Joseph! It is one of the most awesome things – to watch myself grow as a writer. It is almost like watching an external thing. Perhaps because once written, it exists without me.

  3. Absolutely, I think you said this very well. There are times when research is required and a little investigation, but to tell a believable story I think the characters’ portrayals are more important than the setting and historical details. After all it is fiction.

    Personally, I think, if you can develop empathy for your characters then you could change the entire setting to something entirely fictional and tell the same story and be met with the same results.

    • Hi Andrew! Thanks for the encouragement! I do write character driven stories, and I have experienced them living through so many situations other than what has made it to sentences. This must be how a series is developed…

  4. The very simplicity of that statement is what makes it confusing. I’m not much of a writer, but what I have come to understand is that “Write what you know” really means “Write what you understand in your heart.”

    If you deeply love science, and you want to write about the first manned mission to Venus (which would be fascinating just in the description of how they survive Earth’s twisted sister.) You don’t have to be a rocket engineer. You just have to care enough about space to do the research, to imagine the details of what doesn’t exist. You have to care enough about the characters to make your bond with space transfer over. I think that’s what “Write what you know” really means.

    When I started writing Uninvoked, my noveling blog, my only goal was to complete a novel. Any novel. It didn’t matter if it was the worst novel in the world as long as I did it. The story shaped itself, into being about a character I don’t really understand but love anyway. I’m currently rewriting it now that Uninvoked has moved to its own domain, drawing pictures to go with it, and I can finally say its close to what I had in my heart when I first began it. It just needs a few people to help me get the word out that it’s there. x.x

    Anyway, that’s my two cents on this topic. Thanks for posting. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • That sounds like a lot fun, Uninvoked – a noveling blog!

      “to imagine the details of what doesnโ€™t exist.” What a great line! All these ideas that float through a writer’s mind – I suppose they are an amalgamation of EVERYTHING.

      • It is a lot of fun, and I’ve even been doing some artwork for it, since I won’t get to do all that fun crazy stuff when I actually send something out for publication. If you get a chance, stop by sometime. You might like it. ^^

      • I will again! It was before you moved url, sorry I didn’t realize it was a serial blog…If you are planning on querying, how do you decided what to publish or your www?

      • No problem. I figured you were probably returning a comment when you stopped by last time and didn’t look too much. Uninvoked I’m not planning on querying on. It will go up on my website in full, the goal being (hopefully) to attract a readership as a sort of platform for my other novels.

      • wow!! I see a few chapters up You post them gradually, teasingly?? (I will sit down with a coffee and read as soon as I get more than a few minutes to myself on the computer)
        I am very intrigued by the idea of a noveling blog. That requires a lot of commitment, I imagine.

  5. I think it might be all of the above … what you understand in your heart, emotions you’ve experienced, empathy and what you don’t know.

    Maybe what it really means is “the truth” of a story that you know both because you’ve researched it and imagined the inner life of the characters.

    • “imagined the inner life of the characters.” I like the way you say that, Cathryn. It is the turmoil they are experiencing that I wish to capture – the rest is just a vessel.

  6. Now that we have Google, write what you know can be anything. If I want to write about the mating habits of pygmies, I certainly don’t have to travel to New Zealand to find out. (I don’t want to write about that, btw)

    • And why not, Tricia? Mating habit of pygmies can be quite interesting I am sure. LOL
      It’s a good point!
      Google….what would we do without it. But, do you think it catches the flavor properly? Whenever I write about a place I haven’t been I keep it simple – not too much exploring, if you know what I mean. Actually, so far I have kept the places I haven’t actually been to as small elements in my story – I don’t want to seem as though I am writing about what I don’t know ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. I like your last line. Sometimes it’s good to start off writing what you know but sometimes it can be funnier to dive into what you don’t know.

  8. I’m slightly wary of the term “write what you know” because remaining objective when writing is difficult at the best of times. Sometimes, venturing into new territory brings material to life and opens up fresh plot possibilities. I think a writer’s a bit like an actor in that they have to get into other people’s heads in a manner that convinces others.

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