How to REALLY Write What You Know
Updated: Jan 19
And why it is the MOST IMPORTANT piece of writing advice you will ever receive.
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Today, I want to discuss how following this single piece of writing advice (the right way) can virtually guarantee that you are able to write engaging and believable stories every time and garner a group of readers who know and trust you.
Every writer with their head out of their own ass for any extended period of time will have heard the old adage of “write what you know.” However, it is often regarded as fluff—something that sounds nice but doesn’t hold a lot of actionable substance (as far as advice goes).
Many people have rejected it outright as actually being a hindrance to the creative process, or stifling in some way. Others attest that it is a necessity for good writing (like I did just a few paragraphs ago).
BUT!! Both points of view are correct.
I know what you are thinking, I am already being painfully contradictory. But it is true. It all just depends on the individual’s presumption of what that advice really means.
If you want to think of “write what you know” as “write only what you have lived,” then you’d be right that it might keep you from tapping into something special just outside of that lived experience. But, in my opinion, this definition doesn’t fully encapsulate the meaning of the advice.
In this post, I am going to explain what “write what you know” really means and how it can help you lay the foundations of any good story. Actually, good writing in general.
I talk a lot about how storytelling is emotions, and to make a great story, writers need to tap into the emotions of their readers. Twist them and yank on them and manipulate them to your own will. However, readers can also tell quite easily when a writer is not being genuine in the emotions that they are portraying.
“Write what you know,” means writing about emotions honestly, as they are, as you have felt them.
Does that mean you need to have experienced the exact situation your characters are in or even understand the emotions you have/are feeling? Not at all. And we will get into that a little bit further on.
The two R’s: Realistic and Relatable
When you write what you know, you are writing the truth as you understand it. You are writing characters that react in realistic ways to circumstances. And when you do that, your characters become relatable. People can understand the decisions they make, and therefore, they are appealing. There is nothing worse than reading characters who make decisions because the plot requires it, and not because it is something they are driven to do through human emotion.
This one is something that you should always be striving for in everything you write, or post to the public. You want your audience to like, trust, and know you, and that will never happen without sticking steadfast to the truth at all times.
So how can writing what you know help you do these things? What does the phrase actually mean? What does it entail? And how can you utilize it in your own writing in easy to follow, actionable ways?
Well...it is a multi-layered problem, but let's start with the most obvious.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
Not many people experience things on the day to day that others would find interesting. And what about writers that dive into the fantastical or speculative, how can they possibly know about magic, and space travel, or what it feels like to be chased by a monster or serial killer?
We can’t. It’s as simple as that. Unless you're a very dedicated Marlon Brando-esque “method” writer. Which I DO NOT recommend in most cases, at least for the types of stories I write….
So we may not know all that but . . .
We know what we feel.
But if you think for a moment you’ll see that there is quite a bit you do know, even if you don’t know you know it. That is primarily your emotions. You may not know why you feel what you feel, but if you take the time to assess yourself and follow the emotional trail to the beginning you will most likely be able to figure it out.
But this is where the honesty we talked about previously is paramount. The writer has an obligation to dive into topics of emotions honestly and without judgement or restraint. They must be able to analyze what they (and others) are feeling, and push those emotions to their most extreme.
But never ever can you simply make it up. Readers can sense automatically when an author has not given sufficient thought to the motivations of their characters and the emotions behind those motivations.
We know how we react.
There is another side to this problem that doesn’t involve emotion as much (though still does), rather it hits the two R’s aspect of the equation: Realistic and Relatable.
We may not have experienced the fear of being chased by a knife-wielding lunatic, but we could make a pretty good guess as to how we would react in such a situation. Though honesty, again, is key. We like to think we would all suddenly turn into Jean-Claude Van Damme in such a situation, when the reality is more likely to be Jon Heder from Napoleon Dynamite.
Assess why you feel you would react a certain way in any given situation, does it shed light on how your characters are reacting?
Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is if your plot is dictating the behavior of your characters or if your characters are dictating the direction of the plot.
We know what we have researched.
I feel like we tend to underestimate the importance of research as writers. And I get it.
We want to write, we have things to say, and most importantly we just want to get it done!
But "write what you know" is most easily followed by making sure that you learn what you do not know. You research it, you talk to others about it, you do interviews, you reach out to professionals, those who have lived through particular experiences, and understand the history of what it is you are wanting to write about.
Want to write dragons? Well you can’t exactly speak to one or study one in the zoo, but you can speak to scholars on the subject, read the lore, and read fiction that has come before yours.
That is the best way to ensure you keep/grow your authority as a writer. Your readers trust that you know what you are talking about—you have put in the work. There is nothing that puts a reader off more than realizing they are more knowledgeable about your subject than you are. Perhaps you accidentally fell into dragon cliches because you did not read enough other authors that wrote about them before.
Maybe you choose to write about the effects of isolationist politics but get the basic economic principles wrong. Readers like me will never forgive you…
Shameless plug. The Eye of Verishten (Amazon affiliate link) by K.E. Barron takes on isolationist economic policies and she definitely knows more than you about the subject! Pick up a copy.
Read to the end, and tell us how much you loved it, or put it down after the first chapter, and tell us how much it offended you.
Either works for us....
Right. Where were we? Oh yeah, do your research, otherwise, you look stupid and that will destroy your chances of becoming an authority and therefore successful.
You might fool some....but not all.
WRITE WHAT YOU YEARN TO KNOW
Write what you know is only the first side of the equation. You also want to write about what you yearn to know, what interests you, the relentless questions that plague your thoughts and keep you up at night.
This is an exploration, striving for knowledge.
You explore the emotions you do not understand.
In the first section I told you “we know what we feel” but sometimes we don’t know why we feel it.
Why are we afraid of certain things like commitment or rejection? Why do we love people who are bad for us? These are the things that we all can relate to but we don’t all understand.
Exploring these kinds of themes is incredibly powerful for both the author and the reader.
For instance, I am always drawn to themes involving the issues around aging men and their relevance in society. Why is this? I have no idea. But I continue to explore it, both as a way to understand myself and those men who have played an important role in my life.
Shameless plug #2. I have a short a story in The Beginning & End of All Things (Amazon affiliate link) under my pen name Turi T. Armstrong called "Todd" that explores this topic. It's award adjacent! Get your copy today.
You might get lucky and receive one of the few left from the first printing that say Hilter instead of Hitler 60% of the time. Who knows....might become a collectors item some day.
You explore behavior and the motivation behind it.
Everyone has been wronged in some way. Everyone has seen others behave in ways that induce head shaking. If you're a parent it really never stops shaking. But as a writer you can explore these behaviors and do your best to discover what might make someone act in that way.
Rachael Llewelyn has a profound collection of short stories, Human Beings (Amazon affiliate link). In it, she explores the horrific human behaviors that we cannot or choose not to understand. One in particular titled Such Strong Hands, was especially hard for me to read. I don’t want to give any details away, but I will never forget it.
Wow, I just can't stop with the plugs today. Forgive me, but it is hard when all your babies are overachievers!
Every story in the book also does the following...
You explore what makes you uncomfortable and why.
The best horror fiction works off of this premise. We know what scares us, we know what makes us avert our attentions, and it can be so satisfying to dive into that. Contorting things that scare us, hurt us, and make us downright sick is perhaps one of the most genuine things an author can do.
Anyone who has read my post of fear and children’s stories will know my unique perspective on this topic.
WRITE ABOUT THE LIES
The last aspect of "write what you know," in my opinion, is writing to uncover the truth and point out the lies that pervade society.
When George Orwell wrote 1984, do you think he had experienced life the way Winston had? No, but he could see the lies that were being told by society, politicians, and ourselves and wrote a story in hopes of uncovering them.
You uncover the lies you tell yourself.
All of us are guilty of lying to ourselves about something.
“If I only had x, I could do y.”
“I’m not z, you’re making me act that way!”
The character arc itself is based on overcoming the lie your character tells him/herself. From discovering their flaws to confronting their truths and dispelling the lie to prove victorious in the end.
But it’s all the more profound when we use the stories we write to hit upon the lies we tell ourselves and discover who we are, and who we would like to be through our own fiction.
Just to be clear, I'm not talking about sticking morals into your stories or inserting your opinions into your characters. Perhaps I'm being too abstract, but it is more about writing topics that are important to you, things you are really trying to understand, come to grips with, or change.
It's more authentic if you do it that way. For instance, as much as I get flack for this, I don't like writer's adding LGBT characters or diverse culture characters into their stories for the reason of getting on the inclusivity train, not because I think those characters shouldn’t be there, but because 9 times out of 10 the characters they write turn into uninspired stereotypes.
If you are going to do this, take the time to understand the characters you are writing and give them depth.
Otherwise you are better off leaving them out and writing about what you are interested in. There is no point in writing a Queer-Black-Female, or a Muslim Pre-teen if you are not willing to put in the work to understand what that mix might mean to your characters motivations or perspective. Without relying on easily derived assumptions plucked out of the air.
Again, it comes down to being authentic in how we portray the human experience.
I have a written a ranting Foul post touching on this, 'I Love You Because You're Here.'
You uncover the lies others tell you.
Is there something in your life that you held onto dearly but later discovered was a lie? Maybe told to you by someone you loved and trusted. Tapping into experiences like that can add a lot to a work of fiction.
Sometimes it is society or government that lies, and you feel a duty to expose those lies and the people behind them (like in the 1984 example above).
I’m not saying that every author should be on a crusade to stamp out the evils of the world. Some want to write purely for entertainment. And after all, what is a lie to me may be gospel truth to you. But at least understanding the world around you in this way adds a depth to your writing that your readers will thank you for.
But I don’t think writers should ever shy from digging this deep. For me, that is the beauty of fiction. I have stated in another post, 'Sci-Fi's Place in a Brave New World,' how I view fiction as the ultimate form of philosophical debate. When writing a story, you are not just putting pretty words on a page, you are making a statement about the human condition, however small.
I have been reading Blood Meridian (Amazon affiliate link) by Cormac McCarthy and discuss it in both The Fair and The Foul posts later in the month. But apart from my criticisms and praises, he presents a picture of humanity that is shocking to say the least.
The entire story then shows us his arguments for this belief. It is up to us to accept or reject it—making counter arguments in our minds as we read. We then form our paradigms with the conclusions and go out into the world to continue the debate with others.
Now think of how many people have also read that book and in essence are having that discourse alongside you.
I’m getting a little far off topic here though. So I will sum up by saying McCarthy challenged a “lie”that we have been told about the wild west and uses what he knows to dispel that lie through story. Whether or not his truth is the legitimate truth doesn’t matter.
You uncover the lies we hold as utmost truths
Sometimes we do not recognize a lie when we see it. Human beings work on ingrained patterns and we rarely look outside of the box for new ways of doing things.