Write What You Know? I Don't Think So! by @EdenBaylee

How does a writer get an idea for a story? I’ve read several blogs where authors got annoyed when asked this question. I don’t get annoyed, but it does make me think. It’s not an easy question to answer. 

The old maxim “Write what you know” comes to mind, but what does this really mean? Does it mean the author has lived his or her characters’ lives? 

I’ve written erotic fiction, psychological suspense, and mystery, and though a lot of who I am has shaped my female characters, I have certainly not lived their lives. The protagonists have been strong women who have loved deeply, travelled the world, had sex with men—sometimes multiple men at the same time. 

My characters are much more interesting than I am, and that’s how I want them to be. 
You can infer what you like, but I believe fiction should be more than just thinly veiled reflections of authors’ lives. As writers, we should not limit ourselves to what we know. 

I can assure you I have not experienced everything I’ve written. So how can I write about the beauty of a place without actually having been there? How can I convey the magic of falling in love in a foreign land if I’ve never set foot in the country? The answer is I’ve fallen in love before—that is the part I know. Along with fear, longing, lust, and a range of other emotions, the remainder must come from research and my imagination. The measure of good writing is how successfully I can connect my fiction to my readers—on both an emotional and an imaginary plane. 

There are other guidelines for where we can find our ideas. I like to write what I want to know. As a reader, it satisfies me to learn something new with each book. I approach writing in a similar fashion—I want to share something new with the audience. In my research, I'm making discoveries that I hope to present in a fresh and compelling narrative. I write about what intrigues me. I write what I want to read. 

I’ve always considered “Write what you know” a frustrating piece of advice. New writers might even take it at face value to avoid taking risks with their own writing. A good writer shouldn’t be afraid to explore new points of view and create imaginative worlds. 

For me, the saying is not event-driven but has to do with empathy for the characters. It’s about the emotions associated with events. The extent to which I can relate these emotions to an experience, whether real or imagined, is what breathes life into characters and their stories. 

Good writing is good story telling, so it’s important to bring personal experiences into a book if they make for an interesting tale. If they don’t, then nobody wants to read what you know anyway. 

It would be boring. 

Instead, it’s more useful to spin a tale into something fantastical for the reader, something they’ve never experienced. This is where a writer’s imagination collides with the facts. This is what makes for good storytelling. 

Finally, authority and authenticity are important to readers. If you don’t know something, research it. Don’t know what it’s like to commit murder? Figure it out without actually killing someone. Alternatively, interview a murderer or read a memoir of one. Just remember people lie. If you don’t know the difference between Chardonnay and Muscadet, look it up. There’s this thing called the Internet ... and libraries. And if you’re writing about a culture different from your own, please take the time to research it and then ask people from that culture to read your work. Out of respect for them, it’s important to get it right. Some narratives are not mine to tell if I can't do it properly.

So … if you’re a writer of fiction, what does “write what you know” mean to you?

Please free to share. 😊



Susan Price said…
Couldn't agree with you more, Eden. One of the things I love about writing is how it leads you to research subjects you know little or nothing about.

I think the advice would be better phrased as 'Use what you know in your writing' -- but that isn't as snappy. And, as you point out, 'what you know' means emotions, not just facts. I've never been in a truly terrifying situation but I have been very scared -- I can use that experience of fear as an entrance point to something much worse.
Love this Eden! Some very good points - actually, all are good points. We all know how to be human, how to live, love, suffer, fear, desire, feel joy and excitement. And even were we to write 'as a whale' or 'as a cat' , using our imaginations and well researched facts on whales or cats, we'd try to enter their world and surround ourselves with their environment... because we have imaginations, and 'as writers' we sometimes even have too much of that, and of empathy. If we hadn't, we'd not find ourselves driven to write fiction. We'd write a handbook, or a do-it-yourself manual, or recipes for students in bed-sits. (which would need the knowledge, the research, but not the imagination).
Maybe it should be 'write AS you know'?

Sandra Horn said…
Absolutely! To misquote somebody-or-other, 'one's reach must exceed one's grasp or what's a heaven for?' Never mind heaven, it's what creating stories is for. Thank you, Eden!
Bill Kirton said…
Seems we're all in agreement, Eden. In fact, this struck a particularly strong chord with me at the moment. For various reasons (which I'll probably save for a future blog of my own) I've started thinking of adding to my 2 figurehead-carver books a third. ('Trilogy' is so much more impressive than 'pair' after all.) I'm excited by it but also, I'm moving the location from where I live now to where I was born and grew up. That means not only shifting the characters from the top right hand corner of Scotland to the bottom left hand corner of England, but also conveying the everyday 'reality' of mid 19th century life there. To 'know' what that was like, I'd have to be at least 180 years old.
As a writer of fantasy/SF and historical fiction, it's rather difficult to stick to what we know... but life experiences do find their way into my books.

For example, my horse experience turns up regularly, and has so far resulted in two historical novels about famous horses... and I suspect there might be more to come! Also, I have flown a glider solo and used that flying experience in one of my fantasy novels when I was trying to get into the mind of a bird-boy. You seem to carry emotions across to fictional characters in a similar way?
Peter Leyland said…
I'm not a writer of fiction Eden but I have heard that expression a lot and it does suit my own writing. So I won't comment on the fictional element but just say that I really loved the illustrations.
Ruth Leigh said…
Such excellent points, Eden. Why do we limit ourselves?
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Susan! Exactly.

I know so little about so much, but I have knowledge about a handful of topics.
What I know would not fill up a notebook, let alone multiple novels!

Research, imagination, and what we know are all necessary for good writing, but as you say, the ability to adapt our emotions to different situations is so important for storytelling.

Thanks for your comment and have a super weekend,

Eden Baylee said…
Hi Clare,

"Write AS you know" makes a lot of sense! I'm not sure I've ever written from the perspective of an animal. This would be very challenging for me, so I admire writers who are able to do this.

Really appreciate your comment, have a great weekend,
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Sandra, great quote, heaven aside!

We certainly must strive for more, agree.

Thanks for your comment!

Eden Baylee said…
Hahaha Bill,

I can make a smart-ass comment about your age, but I'll refrain. I must respect my elders, after all, hehehe.

YAY that you're writing another book! A trilogy is definitely impressive. You must do it! You're an excellent researcher so I imagine that will be the fun part. Bon weekend!

Eden Baylee said…
Hi Katherine,

Thanks for sharing your unique perspective. I have so much respect for someone like you who can adapt human experiences to a world that is not steeped in reality. I believe people who write fantasy and sci fi have enormous imaginations.

I don't have to build a new world when I write fiction because my books take place in the here ... maybe not the now, but they are of this planet. My characters are human, so I can carry emotions over to them from my own experiences, or from experiences voiced by others.

That you can relate your solo hang gliding experience to the mind of a bird-boy is really talented. I imagine you are an adventurer because it informs your stories, and I think that's a great way to connect to writing.


Eden Baylee said…
Hi Peter, thanks for your comment.

I think "Write what you know" does make a lot of sense for writers of non-fic, memoir, journalistic articles, and opinions.

Have a super weekend,
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Ruth,

Right? We shouldn't!

Enjoy your weekend,
Brian George said…
I do agree with that Eden. I have often used personal experiences and observations for some very intimate emotions in my novels, but where certain situations and characters are concerned I get out and do the research. For instance, when I wanted to find out about killing my main character's enemy, I had in mind the actual enemy that I was getting my own personal revenge on, but I deliberately went across London one Saturday afternoon to a certain pub and meet an ex-con who I knew had done 15 years for manslaughter and armed robbery. I asked him the hows, and how much it would cost, it cost me a few beers and a supply of jellied eels, a local delicacy! For one of the characters, the Chinese earth mother character, I looked for ages to get someone who would fit, image-wise in my head, until I saw a lady in the local bar in China, I asked her permission to use her in the book and she agreed. Her son played drums in our w/e band and her husband became a drinking buddy for a while. They became good friends.
I checked out a red-light district in Lagos online for other situations, but I have also lived some sexual/emotional stuff. I researched how to hand-build a crossbow and a taser online. I do try to keep the story realistic even when I've used some esoteric magic, because I've witnessed it in real-life.
Great article,
Brian George

Eden Baylee said…
Hi Brian, thanks for reading and sharing what inspires your writing as well! Always good to learn how different authors approach their work,
Eden Baylee said…
Hi William, thank you for reading!

Reb MacRath said…
Fine post, Eden. The dictum is so misunderstood and misleading. The biographical facts *behind* what we know are far less important than the deepest feelings that we know for fact. Example: I spent years writing and trying to market a biographical nonfiction novel about my in Canada as a stateless person (long story) and my successful return, though American born, on a Green Card for 5 more stateless. No one would bite. Hundreds of rejections! But then one day I wondered: what if I transformed that book into something that folks could relate to: a horror novel a man who steals another man's suit...and becomes possessed? That sold quickly, for a first novel, and won an award.
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Reb, sorry I missed your comment and am responding so late.
I love your backstory. The market of readers is funny, as is the whole marketing of books in general.

It's really encouraging to hear how you turned something around that wasn't selling to something that did! Please don't be shy about the name of your book!


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