Monday, October 5, 2009

Those Who Think They Know Everything Annoy Those of Us Who Do

Nothing pulls a reader out of a story like inaccurate facts. Or, even worse, coming to a scene and thinking, “That totally would never happen that way.”

We’ve all heard it before. Write what you know. It’s definitely true. No one wants to read a story by someone who doesn’t have their facts straight, but new knowledge is always easy to attain, especially with the internet. With a few clicks on the keyboard, a writer can find all there is to know about just about any subject.

But there are certain things that can only be learned through life experience. Now, I think that writers as a whole are a more empathetic group than most. We have to really get inside our characters’ heads and see everything through their eyes, but without having similar experiences in our own lives that we can compare them to, how can we put that emotional aspect in our writing?

A book about the basics of cattle ranching might be interesting to some, and written by someone who’s actually worked on a cattle ranch would be much more informative, but it would read like a textbook to me. I want strong characters, and turmoil in those characters’ lives. And I want to know how they react to that turmoil.

Rancher Bob is about to lose everything to the nasty new banker. I know, totally cliché, but it’s early on a Monday. So, we could go over all the technical aspects of that situation—posted notices about foreclosure, lawyer involvement, all the things Bob does to try to keep the ranch—but without getting Bob’s emotional reactions, and all the anger, frustration, and despair involved in a situation like that, the story, in my opinion, would be pretty boring.

And that is what I interpret write what you know to mean. It’s drawing on your own life experience to make your characters believable and their experiences believable. And being able to give the reader something to connect to in that character, to keep them reading. That’s the ultimate goal, right? To have our words read and appreciated, and our characters loved by others as much as we love them?

So, I’m wondering. What do you all think? Should write what you know be taken to mean just factual knowledge, or is there more to it than that?

Note: I got the title of this post from a t-shirt my husband has. It’s my favorite. :) I'm thinking about making a badge...


  1. Hahaha, love the title!

    I think you're right on here. I think of writing a good emotional scene like method acting. You want to dredge up a memory of when you felt some kind of similar pain/happiness/turmoil/onui, and then use that to really make Bob the Cattle Rancher shine!

    Did your puppy run away when you were a kid? Man, that sucks :(. But now you can imagine how Bob feels when you make his wife leave him for that pawnbroker in your novel. Write the heck out of that scene using your memory of that emotion :).

    Great post!

  2. I think experience is definitely a part of writing what you know. It isn't just about knowledge. Great post!

  3. LOL, that would make a great badge...

    This is a great post on how to interpret a vague old writing trope-- write what you know. Emotions are universal, despite what life experience we undergo to experience said emotions.


  4. For me, writing what I know encompasses both facts and emotion. I've never been turned into a frog, and can't find anything on anyone who has, but I know what it's like to be afraid, irritated, and out of my comfort zone.

  5. Hmmm...I think it depends on how specific yur writing gets. My first manuscript had an Air Force wife protagonist, and since I was an AF wife, I could fit in little tidbits that made the book more fun. But I think I could easily fake being a pilot, even though I hate flying---just from doing research. The main character of my new ms works in a nursery, and I've been doing some Googling.

  6. I think life experience can definitely help to make characters more believable. That said if you've experienced terrible pain in your life from childbirth or migraines or gall stones or something I think those experiences might make it easier to write about other terrible pain. So it can criss-cross a bit.

  7. Really good post! I love your take on this. I hadn't thought of it that way, but you're right. Drawing upon our own experiences is where the real meat of the story takes place. The details just support it all.

  8. Becca: I may just have to write that novel. Poor Bob! His life sucks. He needs some resolution. :)

    LW: Thanks!

    Tere: Good point. Emotions are universal. :)

    Danyelle: Too bad you can't claim you'd been turned into a frog. Might give you a leg up with an agent. ;D

    Anita: I definitely think that living something is better than just researching it, but that's also because you know how it feels to be an Air Force wife.

    Natalie: I agree that it can criss cross. And I think that's the key. Being able to take our experiences and apply then to our novels, even if you never really experienced a particular thing. If you've lived through the emotion it would produce, then it can definitely transfer over.

    LG: I like that. The details support the emotions. Good point. :)

    FG: Thanks!

  9. I used to think write what you know meant write about your life. It made me stop writing!

    Now I understand it to mean, write what you know, as in... what you LIKE!!!!!!

    I have always been fascinated with horror stories, creepy things. And I was trying to write memoir and woman's fiction. Sheesh!

  10. Suzanne: That's a take on it I haven't heard yet. I like that. And I love horror too. I think I'm going to try that on my next novel. :)