The advice “write what you know” can be disheartening. If you’re like me, you probably feel like you don’t “know” much. How can we write what we know if what we know has been mundane and ordinary?
I’ve got good news for you. You know more than you think.
3 Things You Know
I think we can take the phrase “write what you know” too literally. We allow it to constrain us and we end up writing fictionalized memoirs. We tell ourselves that because we’ve never done something, we can’t write about it realistically.
I was guilty of this with my first novel, a wandering story about a young southern pastor trying to adapt to life in inner city Baltimore. When I went to write my second novel, I was trapped. I’d explored all my exciting experiences already. The well was dry.
Then I realized that I could use the phrase “write what you know” in different ways. Rather than writing versions of experiences I’d had, I could take smaller components of what I knew (knowledge from study, locations I’d been, and people I’ve met) as inspiration for my work.
1. Write WHAT You Know
Sometimes when we write we can find inspiration from topics we’ve invested in.
Before writing thirty-two books and becoming the father of the techno-thriller genre, Michael Crichton was deeply invested in scientific pursuits. After receiving an undergraduate degree in biological anthropology at Harvard College, he received an MD from Harvard Medical School, did clinical rotations at Boston City Hospital, and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
It should be no surprise then that Crichton’s work is filled with scientific quandaries. For example, his breakout novel, The Andromeda Strain, is about a team of scientists investigating a viral outbreak.
Writing from the knowledge we have of professions we’ve practiced or areas we studied can give us a launching point for stories that will pull our readers in. Recalling details from personal experience will save us time and energy we might otherwise spend researching.
2. Write WHERE You Know
Sometimes the thing that can bring us inspiration is a place.
While John Grisham is known in his for writing “what” he knows, he was a lawyer before he defined the legal thriller genre. He also writes “where” he knew. Grisham grew up and lived a large part of his life in the American south, specifically in Mississippi. It should be no surprise then that his early works like A Time to Kill, The Firm, and Pelican Brief, occur in the American south.
As Grisham found success as a writer, he began to travel more frequently. In interviews, he has discussed his love for the Italian people and culture. His 2005 novel The Brooker and his 2007 novel Playing for Pizza both center on Americans learning about the culture of rural Italy.
Choosing a place that you love and are familiar with as the setting for your story can inspire your writing and make one aspect of the work—describing the setting—far easier.
3. Write WHO You Know
Sometimes the inspiration we need is people.
Leaning on his skills as a journalist, author Jon Ronson has leveraged his deep knowledge and understanding of people to pen his ten books. Filled with conversations and observations of the people he meets, Ronson’s books investigate fascinating and troubling aspects of modern life.
For example, in his book The Psychopath Test, Ronson’s exploration of the subject contains multiple conversations with the psychologist Robert B. Hare and with a patient Ronson calls “Tony” who is in Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital. These fascinating interactions create a narrative backbone for the book that take readers on a journey through the topic of psychopathy.
Using interesting people we’ve met as inspiration for our work can make our characters seem larger than life. Additionally, writing people we know or have met into our stories will give us a foundation to work from so we aren’t trying to create complex characters in our work from scratch.
The Power of Writing What You Know
“Write what you know” shouldn’t be constraining. You don’t need to have lived the life your main characters live. Rather, allow the phrase make your job as a writer easier. By writing what, where, and who we know, we can bring realism and life to our stories in a way our imaginations may not be capable of if forced to work from scratch.
How do you write what you know? Let us know in the comments.
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