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Monday, July 18, 2011

What It Really Means to Write What You Know

There’s a saying out there, written by experts and read by wannabe authors, that success comes from writing what you know. I think the idea gets distorted a bit as it makes its way from one end of the Internet to the other, which is understandable considering how vast the world inside the computer is.

Anyhow, the phrase gets screwed up into the idea that you shouldn’t write about dismantling a bomb or performing brain surgery if you’re a student and amphibian enthusiast. Of course, that’s a lie. I’m not ready to say it’s a conspiracy, but there are signs certain websites may be conspiring against us. (Don’t worry, I already checked and this blog isn’t bugged. Give me a little credit.)

I think the idea is more about understanding how to use your experiences to bring the story to life.


When I was writing the first draft of my current WIP, I learned that my main character loved astronomy. Before I go on, you should know two things: 1) I know nothing about astronomy, and 2) I can’t explain how I “discovered” my character’s hobby. If you’re a writer, you’ll understand.

Close parenthesis
There was one scene, on top of a cliff that overlooked a lake. My main character was sprawled out on the ground, staring up at the sky. Without thinking about it, I described the experience. Only after I finished did I realize I wasn’t making anything up. Though I didn’t have the same understanding of the stars as my main character, I described the feeling based on a past experience.

When I was studying abroad in New Zealand, me and a few friends went to an All Blacks rugby game, which was miles outside Auckland, the city where I was living. On the way home, the road was so dark that through the car windows we could see millions of stars dotting the black sky. Having lived in a city for all of college and another six months while abroad, most of us hadn’t seen so many stars since we were in grade school, and even then I don’t think I ever experienced the sky as I did that night.

We pulled off to the side of the road and got out of the car, craning our necks to stare at the sky. I don’t think we even spoke because seeing it like that, without light pollution or trees to block our view, the galaxy felt so huge and so full. We were in awe of it all.

I didn’t have to be an astronomer. I didn’t need any knowledge of the stars or planets or solar system. I could find the facts online. But the research wouldn’t have resulted in the same description. And that, I believe, is what “write what you know” means. Write the emotions you know: fear, anger, love, betrayal, compassion, awe.

The reason we connect to characters that live such completely different lives than us isn’t because we know what it’s like to be homeless or a victim of abuse or tortured. It’s because we all have experienced those characters’ emotions. Whether we can identify with someone living in a dystopian society or not, we’ve longed for freedom, know how to love, and have felt loss.

Don’t overlook past experiences when you’re writing. Even unrelated events in your history can enrich a story.

How do you write what you know?

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