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Write What You Know: Understanding this Classic Writing Advice

15 Dec 2023 Fiction, Inspiration, Nonfiction

“Write what you know” is one of the first pieces of advice many aspiring fiction writers hear when they embark on their journey to become an author. (And if you’re a nonfiction writer, stay with me.)

On the one hand, the idea of writing what you know makes perfect sense. If you’ve ever read a book on a subject with which you’re wholly familiar, you knew immediately when the author moved outside their area of expertise. 

On the other hand, writing what you know seems a rule often ignored. Who among us has rocketed through space or captained a pirate ship?

I have not yet endured the end times. So should I not have written the Left Behind series? 

Japanese-British novelist and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro says, “‘Write about what you know’ is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. It encourages people to write a dull autobiography. It’s the reverse of firing the imagination and potential of writers.”

You don’t need to be an aerospace engineer to write a novel about space travel.

So is there any validity to the advice?

There is!

What any fiction writer must know is human nature. And you must be an empath (someone with the empathy to create believable characters with whom readers can identify.

So, you, as a novelist, need to know and understand human nature. Knowing space travel will require research (unless you are an aerospace engineer), but you certainly don’t need a PhD.

More on Writing with Empathy

Being an empath allows you to write on subjects vastly different from your own experience. To write about the end times, I leaned on theologian and scholar, Dr. Tim LaHaye.

My later duology, Dead Sea Rising and Dead Sea Conspiracy, features protagonist Nicole Berman, an archaeologist. Being neither female nor a double Ph.D. (which lead archaeologists are required to be), what was I thinking in taking this on? 

Well, I’m at least an empath regarding women, having been influenced by many strong females in my orbit. But as a scholarly archaeologist, I’m certainly not.

To write what I know, I had to learn a lot—which, in this case, meant engaging a consultant, archaeologist, and biblical scholar, Dr. Craig Evans, a professor at Houston Christian University. He made sure I had the archaeology and the theology correct. In essence, I was using borrowed credentials—his. 

It was gratifying to hear from readers that they found both my settings and my lead characters fascinating and well-developed. There’s no way I could have done that on my own, based on “what you know.”

I used empathy to put myself in the shoes of both my archaeologist character, as well as a biblical character I used for a subplot (Terah, the father of Abraham). I imagined what these two leads would do and say, based on their backgrounds, expertise, relationships, etc. 

I borrowed Dr. Evans’s credentials to “know” that world and used empathy to “know” my protagonists. 

As I implied above, this advice applies also to nonfiction.

In biographies, for example, while it’s essential to stick to the facts, to best allow readers to relate to your biographical subject, you must render them as realistic, believable, flawed humans—just like you and your readers.

That can be particularly tricky in a historical biography. While you have never ruled the Roman Empire, you should be able to imagine yourself in Julius Caesar’s toga if you’re aware of such universal truths as the potential for power to lead to corruption and create enemies. Even if your leadership experience has been only at a local level, you’ve probably seen this come into play. 

Such insight can turn what might otherwise result in a glorified Wikipedia page into an intriguing, poignant study of one of history’s most pivotal figures.

The most successful self-help books speak to a broad readership of different perspectives.

There’s a reason Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up resonates with so many people. Her suggestion to keep only what sparks joy crossed multiple cultural barriers and seemed to relate to almost everyone.

Writing what you know means understanding what unifies people.

It might just push you out of your comfort zone and force you to grow. 

Ways to Interpret “Write What You Know”

1. Write from your passions.

Passion is infectious, and readers immediately sense it in your writing. 

What excites you, motivates you? Whatever it is, write from the overflow of that passion, and it’ll shine through your work.

2. Write what moves you.

Love, heartbreak, grief, anger, trauma, joy, sadness—these all leave lasting marks on our lives.

Engaging readers’ emotions impacts them much more strongly than even your setting or plot. Readers love to be educated and entertained, but they never forget being emotionally moved.

3. Write from your experience

Naturally, stories or nonfiction based on your life become the very definition of writing what you know.  

Ernest Hemingway’s experience in World War 1 inspired his novel A Farewell to Arms. His main character was an ambulance driver, like himself, and many orbital characters are based on people he knew.

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien used their experiences in both World Wars 1 and 2 to inform mythical stories larger than life.

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s college experiences in the United States partially inspired her book Americanah.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird reflects her childhood growing up in Alabama with her older brother and their lawyer father.

Moments from your life can be powerfully told in memoir or novel form, regardless of whether they are from your experience on the front lines or something poignant from a quiet neighborhood life.

Readers crave emotion, passion, and humanity. Even lovers of action thrillers can resonate with a book that’s not afraid to be quiet.

Putting “Write What You Know” Into Practice

Start by listing the most impactful moments of your life.

Was one something that happened at an amusement park as a child, or another the devastating loss of a loved one? 

Tapping into your grief can prove cathartic, and the closer you get to the bone of your pain, the more powerful your writing can be.

Try writing these memories from a third-person perspective as either the narrator of a story or your actual memoir.

Try to recall the weather, the setting, who you were with, what happened, and how it made you feel.

Conduct Thorough Research

Jacob van Maerlant, a 13th-century Flemish poet and author, once illustrated animals from around the world.

Many he had never seen, leading to bizarre creations (his hippopotamus looks like a fish with tusks).

Readers willingly suspend disbelief to buy into fantasy worlds, but they’re jarred out of the fictional construct when writers make up facts that simply make no sense.

Diana Gabaldon, author of the historical fantasy series Outlander, claims more than 2,200 reference books in her collection.

Helene Wecker says it took seven years to write her debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, with half her time dedicated to research. 

Many resources about legends and folklore can help flesh out your world building.

Just make sure these fictional elements are consistent throughout and make logical sense.

Even we Pantsers (those of us who write by the seat of our pants) must sometimes force ourselves to conduct careful research before jumping in to start writing.

View research as your jumping-off point. You may be amazed how it triggers even more ideas than the ones already bouncing around in your head.

If you’re an Outliner, you probably already have a list of books you plan to get to help prep for your novel or nonfiction book.

Be careful not to get so bogged down in research that it serves as an aid to procrastination. Research can become fun and addictive, but at some point, we need to get writing. You can always research more as it becomes necessary.

The Best Writing Advice: Start Writing

Focus on what gets you to your keyboard. The only way to write a book is with seat in chair. 

Take from my advice what resonates with you, and feel free to ignore the rest. 

“Write what you know” should motivate you, not limit your creativity.

Hemingway said, “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.”

For more resources to assist you with your writing, check out my recommended reading list, books that have helped me become a successful author.