Write What You Know? – #IWSG Post Prompt

This is my January post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

Late by my clock, but hey, it’s still Wednesday is some parts of the world!


The prompt for this month is What writing rule do you wish you’d never heard?

Write what you know.

Oh yeah, I’m gunning for the big one – which is odd, because I teach this rule in my writing classes for ESL students.

It is a deceptive rule, because it makes you think you should write only from personal experience. Now, do you suppose J.K. Rowling ever actually went to a wizarding school? Did P.L. Travers really have a magical nanny? You think George R.R. Martin ever found himself at a wedding that went horribly, violently wrong?

Probably not. But those writers knew people and knew history. They filled in gaps in their knowledge by researching and talking to people. They blended in their own experiences along with facts and experiences learned from others.

If writers only wrote what they knew, every book would be about a struggling writer, trying to make words flow across the page while wondering how the heck they’ll pay for their next meal. Every character would be just like the author (only far more handsome or beautiful, of course). Conflicts would involve overcoming writer’s block, the quest to find an outlet for an outdated laptop, or the constant paradox of needing to talk to people but being hopelessly introverted. (I love stereotypes, don’t you?)

I humbly propose a revision to the old rule:

Start with what you know.

This is the way I wish it had been taught to me. It’s a far more accurate for the stories I think are my best – I started with an event or situation I knew and worked from there. Characters were based on people I met, though I’ll admit that my main protagonist is often very close to being me. But I never stumbled across a family secret so horrible as that in Painted Blue Eyes, nor did I ever experience a car wreck so bad as the one that kicks off The Door I Chose. I had similar experiences, and I talked to family members and friends who had such experiences. And I picked up from books, TV shows, movies, plays, musicals, and so many other sources. I imagine that successful, best-selling authors will tell you the same thing – they experienced events somewhat similar, or learned of events that they fictionalized. They met people very similar to the ones in their books, or borrowed traits from characters in other media.

Can we all start teaching the rule this way instead?

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6 comments on “Write What You Know? – #IWSG Post Prompt

  1. yhosby says:

    I love your advice of starting with what you know. My characters tend to have a piece of personality, the ugly and the strengths. I tend to find plot ideas from movies, experiences of people I know, conversations overheard, and what if scenarios.

    Keep smiling,

  2. When I began to write, that’s what everyone said at first. “Write what you know.” But i agree with you totally. Especially when writing fantasy, I like the saying, think outside of the box.

  3. This is great way to think about it. As some one who writes science fiction and fantasy romance, I also like to make things up. Use history, culture and logic to form something completely new, that no one knows. Happy writing.

  4. Kelsie Engen says:

    That’s a great approach and advice for a newbie. None of us know everything, and so research is just another part of writing. The key is to make your fiction not sound like non-fiction by putting all that research in your story! 😉 Great tip.

  5. Heather M. Gardner says:

    Start with what you know is a much better way to put it.
    I think we do scare ourselves away from writing anything we’re not familiar with.
    Branching out makes us better writers.
    Excellent advice.
    Heather M. Gardner
    Co-host, IWSG

  6. J.S. Pailly says:

    That’s definitely an improvement! I take “write what you know” as a call to go do research, so you know more stuff to write about. But even then, research still just a starting point.

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