Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Write What You Know?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

I'm still on my trip. I went from OYAN in Kansas City to ICRS in St. Louis. I really wanted to blog about OYAN today, but I can't get my pictures off my camera, so I'm going to wait until next week.

You've likely heard it said, "Write what you know." This is wise and makes good sense most of the time. I've met writers who say, "But I really want to write about such-and-such, even though I've never experienced it." And that's cool too. Writing should be somewhat enjoyable. And we all want to write what we want to write. So we should. Don't you think?

The short answer is yes. But there are some gray areas. And here's why. Certain situations are often none of our business if we've never had any experience with them. Abortion is a good example. I've read manuscripts from writers who wanted to make a statement on this controversial topic, and they want to do it through fiction. But if said writer has no life experience with abortion, said writer probably isn't the best person to tell that story. Because living through something and researching it are two very different things. And true life stories are often more powerful than the made-up ones. That doesn't mean said writer can't do it and do it well, but it's rare. And if said writer doesn't do it well, the story almost always comes off preachy. If your goal is to make a statement, your story stops being about entertainment and becomes something else.

Here's what I want you to think about. What have you experienced in your life that you'd be able to write about without needing to research it? For me, it's things like being the oldest sibling, being poor, living without electricity, going to Japan, being a Girl Scout, bad relationships, living with an alcoholic, living in Alaska, being a fashion designer, being a wife and mom, working in youth ministry, playing the guitar, etc.

Those are just a few examples. Every one of you have your own unique list. And chances are, if you were to write a novel that involved any of the things on your list, the writing would come easier and the writing would be powerful.

So I leave the decision up to you. On Friday, I'm going to talk about researching a topic that you have no experience with but need to write about. For now, share with us in the comments at least one unique-ish thing that you have experience with in your life.

81 comments:

  1. I try and take care not to base too many experiences and quirks off myself, because then people assume I'm writing about my life, and it gets... weird. On the flip side, I wrote a character who was an flautist, and practised obsessively, and had a fear of messing up, which are 3 points back to me. Another character was a homeschooler, another character an artist, and another a writer.

    I guess it can be a bit of a struggle for some people to base their book off what they know and still come up with new and different ideas to the last thing they wrote. But a really interesting post, and great things to think about!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've always wanted to learn to play to flute, Mime! Someday, maybe... :-)

      Delete
  2. Mine is ... being a HUUUGE bookworm, not fitting in, being the eldest, having a big family, being feisty (good for a feisty heroine!), playing music, dealing with loss when you're a sentimental person, having radical ideas, loving science and learning of al kinds and being marked out as different because of your intelligence, and overcoming that difference and finding happiness in wonderful friends and new experiences.

    Whew, very specific there. But it has come in useful when writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't use those if I have a FMC though, because I'm wary of writing as myself (especially if it's in first-person!) but I like to take one of my traits and give it to certain people and see what happens based on the rest of their personalities :)

      Delete
    2. "Having radical ideas" -- hahaha! :)

      Delete
    3. Nice! You like science. So cool. I like it, but not learning about it. Ha ha.

      Delete
  3. Being on a tight budget, being the oldest, homeschooled, SUPER shy, different from the average girl around here, being interested in GMO's, body language, and conspiracy theories, being so anxious that I couldn't eat or sleep, liking super random things...living in the country...XD

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You sound like a really interesting and well-rounded person. I'm homeschooled too and it made me smile seeing how many people on this page were also. :)

      Delete
    2. Cool, Una. But what are GMOs? I'm curious. :-)

      Delete
    3. "Being on a tight budget, being the oldest, homeschooled, SUPER shy" Ha!! That sounds a lot like me (Minus I'm not the oldest).

      Delete
  4. Being the oldest of a whole bunch of kids, moving as a part of a church plant, homeschooled, virtual schooled, lover of learning, empathetic and compassionate (and having a hard time dealing with when I can't help), teaching others, many different kinds of art (crocheting, knitting, sewing, embroidery, drawing, painting, cross stitch, latch hook, writing, piano, violin, cake decorating...um, yeah, many. :P), lots of experience with computers, ambidextrous, psychology stuff...erm, yeah, I'll stop now. xD

    Interesting post, by the way! This seems to be quite the debate in the writing world, and I think I tend to err on the side of "write what you know" although sometimes I want to try something new. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Gah! You're so lucky -- I want to be ambidextrous!!

      Delete
    2. Haha, I don't think I'm TECHNICALLY ambidextrous. I don't know what else to call it though. Basically I use my right hand for some things and my left for others. For example, I write left handed and pick up stuff with my left hand, but I bowl with my right hand (and any other sport for that matter) and cut with my right hand. I can't use them equally. :P It's definitely weird though.

      Delete
    3. I've also always wanted to learn to play the violin! And it would be awesome to be ambidextrous! Then I could use the mouse with my left hand!

      Delete
  5. I was a student athletic trainer (ahem... more like a Band-Aid slapping, water slinging, prayer warrior) for my high school football team my senior year. I was the only girl out there with 22 high school boys (34) if you count the JV and 8 coaches. It was hilarious seeing the guys adjust to having a girl on "the team" and awesome to see how God moved in my life and theirs. I goess that kind of qualifies as unique. Maybe?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow. I have no idea why I put the parentheses around the 34 and not the "if you count the JV."
      I'm going to credit it to not getting enough sleep and not getting to finish my morning coffee. -_-

      Delete
    2. I'd read that book, Ashley! LOL Sounds like it was fun. :-)

      Delete
  6. Years and years ago I started on a story that actually included a couple of elements from my own life (family member passing away due to cancer, close relative battling with anorexia and getting into a (small) car accident),but later on I tried to juggle to many of these things in one story. Though I hope to one day wrap my head around writing a story about any of these experiences/topics

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The time will come, Arlette. It sounds like it will bea powerful story someday.

      Delete
  7. That's a great list you have there Ms.Jill!! And I agree, fantasy is different than something like abortion. That needs actual experience or a close friend/relative going through it.

    My younger sister has a heart defect. She's had three surgeries all when she was younger, her last one was when she was three. She's fine and totally normal now (although we have to get flu shots every year and I don't think she's supposed to really play sports) and healthy. However I don't exactly remember a lot of it, my mom went through a lot when my sister was in the hospital. I could definitely ask for experiences and stuff if I were to write a story about something like that. And just to show how it relates to me, I babysit for a small-group at my church and a mother was trying it out with her kids. She was worried because her daughter had the almost same heart defect as my sister! She started talking and once she was done I stepped up and told her my sister and had the same, only in her left heart chamber. It was really cool to be able to say that I get it, I understand more than another babysitter would about what is going on in this situation. It makes me happy to help.

    Otherwise my life is kinda boring. I broke a swing once though :P And I've sat on a roof. But yeah, pretty boring! Haha, I really liked this post Ms.Jill, made me think a lot :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One of my little sisters had one, too. :) She's adopted from China and we didn't have to really go through any of it, though we thought we would. They did the surgery in China before my parents went to get her. She still has to get checked some times, though.

      Delete
    2. Wow, Sierra (and you too, Amanda). I'm so glad your sisters are doing better. I want to read your scene of breaking a swi g. Ha ha. Joking. :-)

      Delete
    3. That is cool Amanda!! It's funny how people keep popping up in my life with similar experiences! Haha, thanks Ms.Jill :P I'll be sure to send it to you sometime...it was interesting. lol

      Delete
  8. To me, my teenage existence doesn't often seem exciting enough for stories, which is why I usually write what I don't know. But a few months ago, my grandmother passed away and while searching through her house I found a footlocker full of keepsakes from WWII that belonged to my grandfather who had a purple heart and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. It looked like something just out of a movie with yellow crinkled letters, black and white photographs etc. And after hearing about how my grandparents met and courted, that inspired me. So hopefully in the future I can take some real experience, or at least evidence of real experience and write what I "know."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. How special, Karoline! Is your grandfather still alive? Do your parents know some of your grandparents' stories?

      Delete
  9. Um, let's see: I'm a twin (which was filed on my sister's chart under "problems," which really makes me feel good), I'm the oldest (very strong-willed, determined, responsible, etc.), loving knowledge, and really struggling with my faith. We were also born 3 months early, and though it didn't affect me or my sister much, we've always been smaller.
    I'm using some of my personality characteristics and medical history for my current novel. My sister has Type 1 (diabetes), so I've always been protective of her. Additionally, some of my most vivid memories were from when she was in pain, whether a low-blood-sugar-induced coma, or watching her struggle as she went into surgery and so wishing I could take her place (I was 10 at the time).

    I'm not afraid of pain, at least with needles. I had to take growth hormone shots every night for four years, and go in biannually for blood draws.

    I could also write about feminism, going to a private school, my denomination, struggling against a figure of authority who seemed to hate me, various sports that I've played but haven't been very good at, secrets being kept from you for years . . .

    Thanks for the post, Jill! And I agree, it's best not to tackle something controversial unless it's essential to the story and your know your topic really well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice! That's the kind of life I would love to read a book about. =)

      Delete
    2. Awww, thanks. I've been actually thinking about writing a memoir, both because I'm naturally better at nonfiction, and because I believe I have a unique story to tell.

      Delete
    3. Wow! That would make a wonderful book or memoir, I would read it!

      Delete
    4. I'm dying to read that memoir, Katia!

      Delete
    5. Katia, you have a host of interesting life experiences! How cool!

      Delete
  10. I have dealt with moving between states, having friends that cut, going from home school to high school (none of which I have used but might). On the none life changing side, I had some characters hike a mountain and used my own experience to describe it.

    With writing what I know, I tend to write things I know as in skills, not experiences. For example, I wrote a short story on Cinderella recently. I don't have any experience with evil step mothers or sisters, but I do know how it feels to be used and miss treated, so I put that feeling into the story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's great, Bookishqueen. That's an excellent way to use your similar experiences to find the right emotion for your story.

      Delete
  11. I guess I could write about the people in my life and what they have done and dream of doing....like a guy I know, Ben Berumez, us a singer and actually got his first CD released last year. Or going through the struggle of finding a church and being unwanted just because you want the truth...
    Overall, though, my life is pretty much boring. :-)
    I guess I could write about homeschooling and how lots of people think you've got it easy. (it kind of annoys me when I tell people I am homeschooled and they are like, "oh, you are so lucky ang get to stay in your pj's all day!'
    Um, no.) :-)
    That is about it, though....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, homeschooling often has a lot more work! Not always, but often. Sounds like you have lots of interesting topics, too, Naomi!

      Delete
  12. Yikes! It does look like a lot of us are homeschooled, I was, too. It's so much fun learning a little more about each person by hearing some of the unique things they've done.
    Here are some of mine: Living on a private retreat that we run. Being head chef on aforementioned retreat. Going to Peru, SA twice. One time for two months where I taught three missionary children school. Having Lyme disease for six years, five of those years were spent without a diagnose, something that was VERY hard as most people misunderstood what I was going through. Raising dairy goats and having a couple months each year during kidding season where I would be in the barn more then the house, lots of little-sleep nights.
    For the past couple of years I've traveled 2-4 months a year. I have adopted parents who work at a museum (the Creation Museum) and I get to help them make life-sized models of dinosaurs, DVD's, hang out at the museum, watch them make a music CD and go on the road with them. Other things... Being a John Maxwell coach. Having a real tipi that I get to write in and have camp-outs in. And working with my family's family business. That's all I can think of right off the bat. (Plus being the 7th out of 10 kids.)
    Thanks Jill for the question! I loved thinking it through!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hahaha, your life is SO exciting! Especially about the whole Creation museum thing :D

      Delete
    2. Thanks! I think my life's pretty exciting, too! =)

      Delete
    3. Head chef? How cool is that? Lyme disease, wow! That's interesting. I bet you could find ways to use that in a novel.

      And, you get to work at the Creation Museum? How fun! I'm jealous... lol

      Delete
  13. Some big life experiances for me were moving across the country, far away from any of my relatives and friends. Being homeschooled till grade seven then landing in school which was rather scarry, but I got over it. My family being evicted a few times, losing a lot of pets, having my best friend's mom die who was sort of like a second mom for me, Making a school record my first year of highschool, and being the oldest of eight. The coolest life experiance was probobly when I was in the woods alone(not a great idea) Heard wild dogs, and ran the mile or two, in melting snow and mud, wearing runners all the way back to the road. It was scarry at the time, but it was truly epic. Great post!! I always think my life is really boring, but looking at this list of experiances it doesn't look that borring anymore.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not boring at all, Jacinta! You've had some really interesting experiences, both good and bad. Lots of material to think about using someday.

      Delete
  14. Slavery is something I'm writing about and have had no experience with. And obviously never wish to.

    One thing I HAVE had experience with is a temperamental family member. Not going to go into specifics here to protect them.

    ReplyDelete
  15. One thing I've had a lot of experience with is the sport of gymnastics. Both competing and coaching. :) But historicals call me to more than contemporaries do, so we'll see if I ever draw on that experience. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You could always do a historical circus novel. :D

      Delete
    2. Ooh! I like that. A historical circus novel. Or a Vaudeville story. That would be really neat, Rachelle. Sadly, my great great grandfather left his wife and kids to run away and join a travelling Vaudeville act. There's two stories there!

      Delete
  16. Hmm...I guess I could write about dance, performing in a musical, having a chronic health issue, being the oldest of sisters, taking a trip to Ireland, going to a public school, and learning ASL (American Sign Language) to communicate to a deaf relative.

    This is a really great post to think about!

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hey Jill,
    I just finished reading your book The New Recruit
    I loved it and it's made me want to read the others
    now I seriously want to read By Darkness Hidden
    you're a good writer.
    I'm pursuing a career in writing and am even almost done
    with my first novel Cathrine Weatherbane. Kind of experiencing
    a small writers block but I'm pushing through it :)
    I just keep on writing.
    Thanks for all your tips and advise.

    Au Revoir
    Sarah

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Ms. Sarah Poem Girl! I'm glad you liked New Recruit. I'm glad to hear you're almost done with your first novel. Keep at it! You can finish it! :-)

      Delete
  18. I think it's okay to write about what you don't know as long as you've researched it thoroughly and know that your sources are reliable. For example, if you truly feel led to write about abortion you would (obviously) research the statistics. Then, you would need to research the process -which would probably make me shy away from it. If you're going to go there, you need to know what you're talking about. Finally, you should try to look up stories/testimonies of people who have had them and who have chosen not to. Video testimonies are best because you can get a good look at the emotions present when the story is told. I wouldn't write about it if I didn't think I could do it correctly -even if I'd done all the research.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, you could do it. But I think it would be really important to interview real people. Documentaries are edited by the director to create the program that the director is seeking to create. But interviews are honest, and you could ask anything, and hopefully, get honest answers. It's very hard work to get it right.

      Delete
  19. Yay, just what I was thinking about lately. Should I involve some personal aspects of my life in my story or not? When is a story too much about yourself?
    I think I don't have such an exciting life. Well, I get a concussion twice, but as far as I know that's the only 'not-normal' thing in my life...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You always want to use your own emotional experiences to help you write similar emotions into your story. But it's good to learn to write characters who are different from you.

      You got two concussions? At different times?

      Delete
  20. Hmm, I've been thinking about this recently. The problem with contemporary fiction is that the main research that is necessary to the story is understanding the viewpoints of different groups of people and that's not that easy to do. Looking forward to the post on Friday! Maybe that'll help :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It can be difficult to find people to interview. But you can do it!

      Delete
  21. I am always at war with this topic, but I think, like Ashley said, that if you REALLY research -- especially by talking to people who've had the thing happen, you can probably get away with writing about something you haven't experienced personally. For example, in the novel I just finished the MC had lost her father -- something which (thank God!) hasn't happened to me personally, but it happened to one of my best friends, and I saw how it affected her.

    You all have such interesting lives!!! Mine is comparatively boring. I think the only interesting things I can write about are moving from the USA to the UK (I could probably also pull off vice versa), being bilingual and mixed race, having relatives with autism, diabetes and in wheelchairs, and having Crohn's disease. Most of the stuff I write is horror/paranormal/fantasy/supernatural or something else weird, so the experiences part would only ever be a subplot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hannah, those things sound SO interesting to me! We always tend to think our own lives are boring. But we're all so different that it's not really boring to others!

      Delete
  22. I think I'll just say something here: NO ONE HAS A BORING LIFE. Okay? ;) There's always something. Always. And different people will see different things! Something that seems normal to you may be really cool to someone else.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I agree with Amanda! You might think that your life is boring, but others might find it really interesting. Everyone has something in their life worth sharing :)

      Delete
    2. Hee, I suppose that included me you were scolding at? :-)

      Delete
    3. Amen, Amanda! That's what I was thinking. Glad you said it! :-)

      Delete
  23. I love that advise, Write what you know, because I am who I am because I was supposed to write the stories I write. :)

    A couple things I have pretty good experience without researching too much are, living with a parent who has bipolar, living in a family with nine kids, hanging around toddlers and how they behave(does anyone else find it slightly annoying when an author makes a five year seem like a two year old instead? It may not seem like much of an age gap, but there is a rather big difference.) growing up with a forest in my backyard. These are pretty ordinary things, but they've helped me create the stories I've written, as well as helped me grow as a writer. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, you totally hit one of my big pet peeves. YES! That's so annoying! Or what if they're ten and they act like they're five? Rrrrrgh!

      *pant pant

      Delete
    2. LOL! Yeah, those authors haven't likely been around kids all that much. Sounds like you have some interesting experiences to use in stories, Clare!

      Delete
  24. This is super good advice! I always struggle with finding the balance between these ones. I write in the more epic side of things, a.k.a let's explode everything and semi-destroy the world and then fix it. Yay! Obviously, I have no experience with mass destruction (though I do have a toddler nephew that we like to call WMD...weapon of mass destruction). And what about historical novels?
    But I know for sure you CAN tell (as a reader) when the author has no idea what they're talking about, especially if they're talking about a topic YOU know a lot about. You can sniff out a phoney so easy. When I read books about music and they mess it up, it makes me dislike the book. Insta-problems. So yeah, this is such a huge topic, I reckon. ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are so funny, Cait! WMD... lol!

      And you're right! And I never want to be one of those authors where my readers are like, "Um, Jill. This is WRONG!"

      Delete
  25. I am the youngest of nine. I've worn only skirts all my life. I have a physically handicapped parent. I am homeschooled. I babysit like some people breathe. I'm a literature geek who lives in the middle of nowhere. I get sick easily. I paint with mascara. I've never played an official sport. My joints are weak and get sore easily. I make friends with adults and kids easier than teens.
    I'm very very weird.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I make friends with adults and kids better then my own age, too!
      I think it might be because kids are ok with being silly (and so am I) while teens try to be 'cool', and being silly is not 'cool'. :)
      I wish I had kids to babysit. I love kids! :)

      Delete
    2. Lydia, that was so fun! How do you paint with mascara? I want to see a painting.

      Delete
  26. Amanda's right, no one has a boring life. :) All of these stories about yourselves are so awesome. It's especially amazing when other people connect with you, and "as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." :)

    My life has been rather adventurous, with obstacles, yes, but it's been very, very good. I'm so blessed. Some of the things I've learned throughout my personal journey I've felt I need to write about. Thus a (fictional) story is in the works. While these experiences are playing a significant part in my character's story, it isn't so much that my character's story and my story are the same, or that I'm writing myself into the story that I wished I'd lived or something, but I'm writing about someone I can relate to and connect with.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post (and the discussion that followed!) and look forward to Friday's!

    ~Whitney

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great point, Whitney! Thanks for that.

      And I'm glad you've found a way to use your experiences in a story! That's great. :-)

      Delete
  27. Hmmm. My unique experiences would be:
    Being homeschooled (and then going straight to high school, that was tough)
    Divorcee child
    Dealing with a suicidal person
    Finally, grew up in what was essentially a cult.

    Looking back, none of those experiences were necessarily easy, but most of them turned out for the better in the end. And now I have a nice little well of real-world experience to tack onto my writing resume ^_^

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's true, Lindsey! And perhaps you'll want to use those experiences in a book someday.

      Delete
  28. Okay, where do I start? Being adopted, my adoptive dad being in the Army and retiring after 21 years, moving several times, being homeschooled, being in various forms of dance, watching my grandpa pass from cancer and having a birth defect.
    I have stories based off most of the above list. I'm going to work on a story consisting of some sort of birth defect as it is a very important part of my life. The defect is on my feet and doctors said they weren't sure I'd ever walk, but I can walk, run and as you've seen above I can dance.
    Some very exciting news is that just last month, I received pointe shoes in which all the professional dancers use. I'm sure this kind of went off subject, but, eventually that will become one of my stories. : )

    (MJ)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's awesome, MJ! Congrats! I think that would make a great story! Wow. :-)

      Delete
  29. Mine would be:
    being a youngest child
    dealing w my dad's cancer
    going to a private school
    not fitting in
    ADHD sister

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow. There is some tough stuff there. You could certainly use that when and if you are ready.

      Delete
  30. Well let's see, I'm homeschooled, there are 8 kids in my family, my little brother has diabetes, I moved while in high school (yes it sucks even when your homeschooled. trust me), and I had to learn to make new friends in a new place.
    My personality is someone opposite. For instance, I'm feisty, but shy. I'm incredibly opinionated, but I'm don't always tell people about my opinions. I'm stubborn and a perfectionist. Once I've set my mind to doing something, I'm either going to do it or die trying.
    Also, I'm a daydreamer and I had a short time when I was slightly anorexic because of a body image issue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sounds like some good material to use in your stories if you wanted to, Alexa. Your personality would make a fun character too! :-)

      Delete
  31. I am incredibly late right now, but I think for me it would be that: I'm homeschooled, I have a chronic illness, my older brother has autism, my dad had a stroke a few years back and has heart problems, I was bullied when I was younger, I nearly broke my neck when I was like eleven and I have quite bad anxiety.

    ReplyDelete

Home