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Write what you know?

How many times have you heard this piece of advice, and what the heck does it mean, anyway?

How could anyone write science fiction or fantasy, or describe love as an old/young/man/woman/girl/boy and write what they know?

I’ve heard that John Grisham writes mostly lawyer stories because he knows lawyering. Maybe he does. Maybe that’s what people expect. I don’t know, but my favorite JG book is “A Painted House,” told by a young boy on an 1950s Arkansas cotton farm. What did he know about that?

I recently read an article by Michael Farrington on this subject. He states that we usually interpret “what we know” as what we know about the subject. Anybody ask Frank Herbert how he knew about the planet “Dune?” No, Farrington says, write what you know about the story.

When we embark on a story writing journey, we usually don’t foresee each twist, turn, stop, and start. Rather, we start with a kernel of an idea. A “what if”, or “why,” or an image comes to us and we expand on it.

I narrowly avoided running down a rabbit recently when it dashed through the glare of my headlights. “Why do they do that?” I asked. That was the kernel, and the story grew from there.

From that point, though, you do need to know some things. Like how relationships work, how people struggle, how they overcome or fail, and why those things interest us.

What do you know about your story?

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  1. March 3, 2011 at 4:54 am

    In my passed, I wondered if I was writing what I actually knew. A few days ago, I found this blog, and it changed my mind completely, and I wanted to share it with you: http://jsascribes.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/knowing-what-you-write/#comment-18

    • March 3, 2011 at 1:04 pm

      Thanks Isabella. Research and experience are key to “knowing what you write,” as the author says. I’m working on a project that happens partly on an Indian reservation in Nevada, so I had to go there. 1400 miles, but the experience was great, and I even got to go back in our recent trip. It’s a completely different mindset from writing what you know.

      • March 3, 2011 at 3:31 pm

        Oh, yes…the traveling part of writing — there’s nothing like it! It’s awesome that you had a great experience! I wish you luck! 🙂

  2. March 3, 2011 at 5:28 am

    Hey Joe, this is a thought-provoking topic well stated. I have to admit, I’ve been a bit of a lurker of yours and the message you consistently portray is one that is very well received.

    Your connection to the reader is strong and I’ve picked up on that. Congratulations on your ability to engage and I look forward to “lurking” some more in the future.

    Karen Cote

  3. March 3, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Hello, Joe,

    I think that “write what you know” could be interpreted as “write what you know is true in your heart”. If you write from your passion, your stories will seem real, even if they’re entirely the product of imagination.

    I love your cover for “The King of Silk”, by the way!


  4. March 3, 2011 at 1:14 pm


    That’s where “truth in fiction” comes from, I guess. Stephen King said you should write with honesty. It’s a scary thing sometimes to leave yourself open like that.

    And thanks for the cover nod. That is Delilah Stephan’s creation.

  5. March 3, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    Hi Joe. Great topic, an interesting one for me, as I write alternate history. To me, taking a “what it” premise and overwriting it with my own life experiences, yearnings for things I’ve never experienced, and the knowledge I’ve acquired along the way satisfy that “write what you know” mandate just fine. Neat blog, by the way.

  6. March 3, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    And that’s the truth! I would never have written a horror story/mystery just based on what I have lived…my boring, comfy life. Hey, maybe that’s why I wrote something so different from what I live? It’s fun to use imagination to escape the everyday and I think readers like it too. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Joe.

  7. March 4, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    I agree with what you said. For me, part of the fun of writing (and if it wasn’t fun I wouldn’t be doing it) is learning new things. Researching things I don’t know. Opening my tiny world to the larger world. Like Dr. Seuss says, “Oh the place you’ll go.”

    Nice post.

  8. June 2, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Hear! Hear! Well done.

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