Friday, May 19, 2017

What “Write What You Know” Really Means

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

The week’s Refresher Friday takes a heavily update look at writing what you know. Enjoy!

Writers hear it all the time: Write what you know.

Good advice, but a little more information on what that means might be nice, right? Does this mean if you're a graphic designer, you should write about graphic designers? Doctors should write about doctors? Third-grade teachers should write about third-grade teachers?

Yes and no.

We know a lot, and every memory, experience, or lesson is an opportunity to flesh out a moment in our novels. Because no matter what we know, that core knowledge is also within our readers. Human experience is shared, and through our characters, we can connect with our readers and share those experiences again and again.

For example, the practical side of “write what you know” is to draw on your own expertise. If you’re a doctor who wants to write medical thrillers, use your experience to create a more compelling and realistic novel. You’ll have insights and know details someone who never worked in a hospital would never know. But if that same doctor wants to write cowboy romances set in the 1800s, a lack of knowledge shouldn't deter you. You might not know anything about cowboys at the start, but you can learn.

The other side of “write what you know” is using our life experiences to imagine the situations we want to write about. We do this by using what we “know,” even if we know it in a way that's not the least bit story worthy.

Years ago I flipped on my bathroom light one morning, and in a buzzing flash, two light bulbs went out. The single remaining light turned my normally bright and cheery bathroom into something dim, dingy, and even a bit scary. Though I'd been awake for all of two minutes, I noticed how that change in light affected the mood of the room. I noticed details I probably would not have thought of on my own.

Now, if I ever need to write a scene in which the quality of light creates a creepy mood, or use the simple act of a light bulb burning out to foreshadow, I'll know just how to describe it. Because I've seen it, and now I know it. I know how it made me feel, what I saw, the sound of the bulb popping as it went dark.

Every writer knows a lot. Maybe you've never been stranded on a desert island, but I bet at some point in your life, you were left behind somewhere—friends forgot to call, you were late and everyone else left, you were excluded from something. That gem of feeling, the memory of that event, can be used to craft the bigger emotion needed for the desert island story. You can take what you know and expand on it.

Human emotions are universal. We’ve all felt pain, sorrow, joy, anger. The details are different, but the feelings all come from the same human center. Being pissed at an injustice is the same no matter what that injustice is. We can use that office feud to inspire us to write that civil war between factions in our fantasy novel, same as we can use our knowledge and experiences of office politics to write about, well, office politics.

Just like we use a character's past experiences to know how they'll react in a situation, we use our own past experiences to understand what our characters are going through. If you're a graphic designer, use that knowledge of art, and beauty, and patterns and colors, or commercial aspects of a creative field. Look at the themes and generalities of what you know and see what's usable for your stories.

Unsure how to start? Here are some ways to draw on what you “know”:
  • Use strong emotional memories—good and bad—to deepen a scene with the same emotion.
  • Use things that have embarrassed you in the past.
  • Use the things that have made you angry.
  • Imagine paths you regret not taking.
  • Brainstorm unusual ways to apply personal skills or talents.
  • Use your own flaws and weaknesses.
  • Borrow from your own strengths.
  • Embrace (and use) your past mistakes.
  • Embrace (and use) your past successes.
  • Remember as many “first times” you did anything that you can.

Tapping into real emotions and real experiences as we write allows our readers to do the same thing as they read. Just as a smell or a sound can bring back a memory, a character experiencing an emotion based on the author’s memory can trigger a similar memory in the reader. And each reader will bring a new history of experience to the story, making it his or her own.

Writing what you know is just using our own experiences and feelings to connect with our readers and bring our stories to life for them. And we all “know” a lot more than we think we do.

(The urge to end this with "and knowing is half the battle" is overwhelming).

What knowledge have you brought to one of your stories?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Thank you for this post. I am one of those writers who doesn't think she knows a lot. You're right, though. We all know more than we think we do.

    I've come to think of writing as type of method acting. Though I have never faced down a werewolf, I know terror. I can use the emotions I felt when I was terrified to write about the terror my character feels when she comes face to face with a supernatural baddie.

  2. Drawing on emotions is important, and doesn't really require that you've experienced the same situation you're writing about, as long as you can relate to the joy, fear, anger, etc.

    (And on that light example--I wish more authors would take a minute to understand what they can and can't see in dim light. They seem to use darkness to enhance the mood, but then describe things like eye color and other nuances that just aren't going to be visible.)

    Terry's Place

  3. Good insight Janice. Although I think the true power comes in the form of learning so you still write what you know. If you research something to the point you can offer insight then you will know about it. You do write what you know, it's just what you know continues to evolve. :-)

  4. Great post Janice! It is easy to forget the vast assortment of things that we each know, have experienced and understand. I think that the more familiar we are with something the harder it can be to see the power in that knowledge base, just a theory.

  5. Great explanation on how that old addage can actually be applied! lol. I think this will be helpful to a lot of people. So a mighty thank you to your burned out bulbs for sparking this idea. :P

  6. Catierhodes: I've heard a lot of folks equate it to method acting and I think that's a good comparison. Put yourself in your character's shoes and imagine what they must be feeling.

    Terry: Ooo I'm so there with you about the dim light. Totally pushes my POV buttons, LOL. I wonder if that's why I enjoy writing scenes where my POV can't see? It lets me use all these fun non-seeing descriptions.

    PW: Absolutely. I know I've learned a lot of interesting things from researching I never would have otherwise. Maybe it's also write what you want to know :)

    Gene: I can see that. It's not unusual to undervalue our own knowledge. If we know it, it can't be that important, right? But what's normal or common for us might be exotic for someone else. I grew up around beaches and palm trees and I'm sick of "paradise," but others love it and think I'm crazy!

    Gloria: I hope so! The things you can learn from simple household items.

  7. This was so helpful!!! I always get stuck on emotions, and don't feel like I'm truly there with my characters. Thank you!!!! :D (by the way, your blog is the only resource for writing I use now ;))

  8. I never thought of it that way, but you're so right. There's so much we have buried that could enhance our characters, but we don't think it's special enough because it's 'just us'. But I know how it feels to be left behind, literally, I just never gave it much weight because it seemed so ordinary to me. Thanks!

  9. Anon: Aw, thanks! It's all about imagination. If we can make up the whole story, it's not any harder to imagine how a character feels. It just seems like it sometimes because we want to be "authentic." But we can be real and not have experienced something at the same time.

    Pamela: Most welcome. That sums it up well. "Seems so ordinary." But that's what touches us because we can relate to ordinary. We've all been there :)

  10. My approach is if I want to/need to write about something I don't know about, then it's time to go learn. Going out and having new experiences is just another part of the writing process.

    1. Absolutely :) I just got back from a week in Sedona doing research for the latest book. That's half the fun of creating a new story world.