Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Write What You Know - Or Not

I think I've gone a long time as a writing blog without having a post on "write what you know." I had second and third thoughts on whether I should bother. I'm sure there are 4.634 gazillion blog posts on the subject.

The term write what you know is considered a good adage to follow. If you quilt, you can write compelling fiction about a team of quilters. If you like motorcycles but hate quilting, let the first group do the quilt stories.

There are people who rail against this advice. "If we only wrote what we knew, we wouldn't have any science fiction. Or historicals. Or sparkly vampire love fests." (Maybe that last one wouldn't be a bad thing.)

I would say, they're both right.

I didn't have to eat durian to describe it
I work in medicine. I spent two months in Thailand. This may have have some influence on my WIP involving a medical student traveling to Thailand. It makes it easier to start there, as I have background in it. When I've had critiques, people comment on the sections where I use the tropical location, or have a suspenseful scene with medical overtones. These parts seem to resonate more.

Writing what I know seems to be paying off right now.

The rub is that I don't know if I can write the same stuff forever. I haven't been to every country, and I don't think everything I write will be set among tropical breezes and exotic fruit. Obviously authors write about many things they don't know firsthand. They do their research, use real world experiences as references, and play off of them to write something new and unique to them.

Brandilyn Collins has an excellent three post series on her old blog where she can take anyone and put them into the mindset of a murderer. If we wrote what we knew, a lot of mystery and suspense writers have some skeletons in their closets. Maybe literally. But Brandilyn's method helps an author go to a place they would never reach otherwise (we hope).

There you go. I'm officially on the fence. Sometimes you need to write what you know. Other times demand something original, but you can still find analogies in your life to make it pop.

What side of the fence are you on?


  1. Anonymous7:05 PM

    I've never lived in Medieval Europe, but one fantasy series is set in a version of it.

    Research can take us places we never thought we wanted to go -- reading books or watching documentaries has been like surfing the Web: doors are opened and ideas are sparked, and I venture down new pathways to places, events, times which I cannot possibly have lived but about which I write.

    However, stories must be peopled, and people I know. Therefore, I can set them in places I've never been, give them clothes I've never worn, give them tasks I've never done, and still be able to make a story feel real.

    It helps to get a lot of feedback from people who know more than I do about some of those things -- they can tell me what works and what's totally bogus. In the end, though, I'm still writing what I don't know.

    (Keanan Brand)

  2. Keanan,

    Thanks for commenting! I agree with everything you say. Writers draw from all sources, whether we've experienced them or researched them. Even the stuff I know I need to research to make sure I'm accurate.

    And the poor people we know. Muhahahahah.