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Debunking Writing Myths: “Write What You Know”

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

“Write what you know” means you can only write about what you have personally done or experienced in the confines of your own life.

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“Write what you know” means you can use everything you’ve experienced in your life to imagine other possibilities, other worlds, other outcomes.

“Write what you know” is one of the most misunderstood instructions given about writing. Most people take it at face value, interpreting it as, “Write about only what you have personally done or experienced in the confines of your own life.” If fiction writers were to interpret it this way, we would eliminate entire genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical, and 99% of mystery/crime/suspense/thriller. There would be no Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk, no Luke Skywalker, no hobbits and Middle Earth, no Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, no Scarlett O’Hara, no Sherlock Holmes, no James Bond or Jason Bourne, no Superman or Batman, and no one would have ever heard of a man named Stephen King.

If we wrote only about what we have personally experienced, what a boring world this would be. But we have imaginations with which, as the character of Chaucer (Paul Bettany) said in A Knight’s Tale, we “give the truth scope!”

I have chosen romance as my genre. I love the process of crafting my characters and taking them through the intricate dance that is the progression of their relationship. Yet I read these types of sentiments all the time (not about me specifically, but about all romance authors): “I don’t read romance novels written by unmarried women because they have no idea what they’re talking about. Writers are supposed to write what they know, and unmarried women have no idea what it’s like to fall in love and get married—because they’re still single.”

Being as how I’m still single at thirty-nine, have never dated, and have never even been kissed, it made me question my calling to write romance. And then I made a very important realization:

Romance novels are about SINGLE people! Yep, you read that correctly. Think about it. With the exception of two small subgenres (romance in marriage and stories featuring extramarital affairs), romance novels feature as their main characters two UNmarried people facing and dealing with everything that comes along with being SINGLE. And for me, being unmarried and having lived by myself for more than ten years, I find it very easy when I read romance novels to determine if the author was married at a very young age or if she experienced some of what it is to be a single adult out on her own in this world. Those who married later—in their late twenties or after—have a much more authentic voice when creating their characters’ SINGLENESS than those who married straight out of high school or college.

I have fallen in love before—even though it didn’t turn into a romantic relationship. So I know what that feels like. I know the heartbreak of the breakup of relationships (close, intimate friendships) when the other person decides they just want out or aren’t getting what they want out of the relationship. I also know how to read, how to listen, how to observe and how to take what I read, hear, and see and apply those experiences to my stories. I’ve never worked at a TV station, but I know how to do research and had the opportunity to go down to one of the local stations and witness the prep and broadcast of the program that Alaine’s show in A Case for Love was based on. I didn’t live in the early 19th century, but I can read books that were written then, I can read research books and extrapolate and surmise what it was like to live back then.

I write what I know: I write about people.

How do you “write what you know”?

31 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, January 4, 2011 10:17 am

    See, I realize that readers might not want to read about a 46-year-old librarian who took 12 years and two children to graduate from college. I probably wouldn’t. And I write romance. I was one of those who didn’t spend much time single, but I do have a sister and a best friend who remained single and lived on their own for a while, a daughter in college with a first boyfriend, I read a lot, and a watch a lot of television.

    I’m with you. Just because you haven’t experienced something directly, doesn’t mean you haven’t at some level. I read a story recently about the birth of a baby, written by someone who has never been married or had children. As someone who has experienced it, it was pretty darn real.

    People do provide a variety of things to write about, don’t they?

    Like

    • Sylvia M. permalink
      Tuesday, January 4, 2011 11:10 am

      I would love to read about a heroine who is a librarian. That is a normal job that our friends, family, and people we know do.

      Like

    • Tuesday, January 4, 2011 4:56 pm

      But there’s always a way to incorporate “who we are” into our stories/characters. Librarian? Yep, plenty of books about librarians. Forty-six years old? Next big trend in romance (and other genres) is older characters—after all, Baby Boomers buy more books than any other age group. Twelve years to finish college? Talk about a character with perseverance!

      Nothing has ever come easily, or quickly, for Jane—it even took her twelve years to finish college! Now, this mild-mannered librarian’s life is about to be shaken up when everything around her starts moving in fast-forward—each day, a little bit faster. Will Jane be able to figure out how to make it stop—or catch up—before she’s completely left behind by those she loves most?

      See how you can break down the elements you “know” and turn them into fiction?

      Like

  2. Tuesday, January 4, 2011 10:40 am

    I love this post! I am married, but I agree that single people–even those who may have never dated can write amazing romance. Why? Because romance was invented by God. God longs for Divine romance with all of us. He woos us, protects us, fights for us, goes to sacrificial lengths to rescue us, and cherishes us. Everything involved in a good romance. To know God, and His love for us is to know romance! I also think we have an advantage as Christian writers. We have the opportunity to pray and ask God to help us see things the characters we write about experience. We may not have been addicted to drugs, but who knows better than God what that person goes through, feels, struggles with even. I think researching is important, but prayer and asking for insight and wisdom is equally important to get it right and minister to healing hearts! Blessings to you, Kaye!

    Like

    • Tuesday, January 4, 2011 4:58 pm

      We also have the benefit of being surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ who may have gone through things we’d never think of, but through their testimony may find stories waiting to be told that will then go on to help others.

      Like

  3. Tuesday, January 4, 2011 10:41 am

    Well, you didn’t just debunk that myth. You pretty much stuffed it in a tree shredder, then buried the remains in soft peat for a few months and then recycled it as a fire lighter.

    Like

  4. Tuesday, January 4, 2011 10:41 am

    Excellent post, Kaye! What a wonderful gift God has given us–creativity. As we strive to be more like our Father, it’s only natural that we create.

    The most magical aspect about writing for me is being able to do those things that are not always physically possible. I enjoy travel. I like to meet different people. But I don’t always get to do those things in real life. Sometimes I’m afraid, but my imagination gives me a chance to test my wings. When I research, when I escape into my own imagination, I create places and people. The experience enriches my life. I grow.

    Write what you know. I know how it feels to have goosebumps when I find myself in a new adventure. I know how it feels to be a little kid who can turn a cardboard box into an airplane. I don’t want to forget these feelings. That’s why I write what I know.

    Like

    • Tuesday, January 4, 2011 5:00 pm

      I heard a pastor once talk about how we’re made in the image of God—and because God has the power to create, we were created with imagination: the ability to make something of “nothing” because God loves us just that much. It’s one of the greatest God-given gifts, and yet so many people are convinced that it’s only for children. How sad for them!

      Like

  5. Kim Payne permalink
    Tuesday, January 4, 2011 11:01 am

    Boy did I need to have that myth debunked this morning. Thank you for providing a little reassurance for those of us still getting our feet wet in the writing world.

    Like

    • Tuesday, January 4, 2011 5:01 pm

      That’s what I’m here for, Kim! I think we’re going to have a lot of fun over the next nine weeks as I get to the other items on the list.

      Like

  6. Tuesday, January 4, 2011 11:09 am

    The best words of wisdom I have been given…ever…. was when I was six years old. My mom told me to “go outside and play”- my reply was “with what?” her answer “Go use your imagination!”

    God made us all dreamers and part of dreaming is imagination. As writers our job is to help our readers “escape” into places they may find familiar but maybe with the twists of fiction, fantasy, thriller etc. To me, the best part of writing is writing what you don’t know….and go on the “ride” with your readers.

    So yes, I love the fact that you have debunked the myth…and given courage to those of us who may sometimes wonder if it’s OK to write what you DON’T know….
    Well done Post Ms. Kaye!!
    🙂

    Like

    • Tuesday, January 4, 2011 6:27 pm

      That’s one of the things that bothers me the most about kids today (good grief, did I just come off as a geezer or what?)—that they’ve totally forgotten how to entertain themselves with just their imagination (and maybe a pencil and spiral notebook).

      Like

  7. Kav permalink
    Tuesday, January 4, 2011 11:16 am

    Amen! If you think about it, it would be scary to if writers did half the stuff they write about! LOL! That’s why God gave us imaginations — however I do think there are areas where writing what you know enhances your story.

    Take setting, for instance. It doesn’t matter whether you know it from personal experience or have come to know it through diligent research — the important thing is you know!!!! Because it really increases the reading pleasure of your readers.

    Or writing Suspense. Not many writers have a background in forensic science or police procedure but the good stories have all been well researched — so well in fact that the reader is sure the author knows what she is talking about.

    Same with Historical. You obviously weren’t alive 100 years ago but you sure can write as if you had! So maybe the phrase should be Write what you know you know….you know?

    Like

    • Tuesday, January 4, 2011 6:31 pm

      If I took “write what you know” literally, it would be a book filled with a lot of little odds and ends of historical facts, Psych 101 and Sociology 101 tidbits, and a how-to guide for young women living on their own for the first time in their lives (well, maybe I should write that book—how to fix a toilet that won’t stop running, how to change a tire, how to know when a mechanic is trying to pull the wool over your eyes, etc.). But it sure wouldn’t make interesting fiction.

      Like

  8. Tuesday, January 4, 2011 11:52 am

    Kaye, you explained that exceptionally well! I, too, write about people and lives. I know people. The rest I research. I can’t know what it was like to live in 1900, but after studying that time period, I feel like I do.

    As for mysteries, well, I’ve killed a few people in my stories, but I can assure you I don’t know a thing about making a real bomb.

    Like

    • Tuesday, January 4, 2011 1:35 pm

      For which we are all grateful. 😉

      Like

    • Tuesday, January 4, 2011 6:33 pm

      I think the reason it works so well is because, by and large, people really haven’t changed that much throughout the history of time. We still have the same wants, needs, and desires—the same longings for love and meaning and acceptance. That’s not only what helps us as writers, but what helps readers connect with characters in time frames or fantastical settings they’re not familiar with. They connect with the characters because they know the characters on a deep level. They learn the rest as they experience it through the characters, just like we authors do!

      Like

  9. Tuesday, January 4, 2011 11:53 am

    Very well said, my friend. 🙂

    Like

  10. Tuesday, January 4, 2011 12:03 pm

    Great post, Kaye. One of the many traps new writers fall into.

    Like

    • Tuesday, January 4, 2011 6:34 pm

      I was going to say it more along the lines of:
      You know what you know, but you also know what you don’t know which you can know if you care to.

      Like

  11. Tuesday, January 4, 2011 12:35 pm

    Great post. I don’t think this can be said enough. Thankfully “write what you know” is one myth I never took seriously (in the narrowest sense). I was probably a couple of years into writing my Iron-Age Celtic-based fantasy novel when I ran across it, and my reaction was probably to blink at whoever had said or written it and ask, “What? You’ve never heard of research?” I love to write about what I don’t know, or at least to think up stories about things I don’t know. Questions about our walk as Christians, or about human nature, that I haven’t answered yet, characters, settings, occupations, cultures, or situations I’ve never experienced. Then I get to go learn about them so that I can write them. Even through the process of writing I’m still coming to Know them. That’s half the fun of writing!

    Like

    • Tuesday, January 4, 2011 6:36 pm

      I wonder if it’s easier for “newbie” writers who started writing in childhood to understand the true meaning behind this (or to just shrug it off)—because we know instinctively that the most important thing we need to know for writing is that our storytelling ability is limited only by the boundaries of our imaginations.

      Like

  12. Rebecca permalink
    Tuesday, January 4, 2011 1:43 pm

    Very well said!

    Like

    • Tuesday, January 4, 2011 6:37 pm

      I’m looking forward to knowing new things as I incorporate ideas like a reality dating show, a community theater, and a character with short-term memory problems into a new proposal.

      Like

  13. Tuesday, January 4, 2011 2:19 pm

    I LOVED THIS POST! You said exactly what I say to others all the time! I’m a Fantasy writer – it’s what I do. I give the truth a LOT of scope. (And it’s somewhat allegorical! ^_^ Although, of course, that’s for every man to decide for himself). WAY TO GO!
    ~ Ëarwen

    Like

    • Tuesday, January 4, 2011 6:38 pm

      And I tell people all the time that Romance is the biggest fantasy genre of them all—even more so than the genre labeled fantasy. But it’s all about imagination. And we know where that can take us!

      Like

  14. Friday, January 7, 2011 1:51 pm

    You know, I think this is about the third blog post I’ve read this week on this theme! I completely agree with you. I love writing historical fiction, and yet I’ll admit to having had little doubts now and then over whether I could really be successful at writing about places I’d never been, especially in a different time period. But I’ve had fewer and fewer doubts of that kind ever since I’ve learned to love research. I told my mom that research is almost like time travel – you can go back to any time and place you want (and sometimes don’t want to come back!).

    Like

Trackbacks

  1. Flannery’s Favorites–Day 1 « KayeDacus.com
  2. Writer-Talk Wednesday: Debunking Writing Myths | KayeDacus.com

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