Monday, March 21, 2016

Writing Advice Examined: Should You Write What You Know?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

If you've heard any piece of writing advice in your lifetime, I'm guessing it's this one. Maybe like me you can't think of a single time outside of a classroom door when you were given this advice in a serious context. I certainly don't know any creative writers who do anything but scoff at the idea that writers should stick to what we know.

But I think it's good advice. Whether you write science fiction or contemporaries or poetry, I think the answer is yes, you should write what you know.

Here's what I mean:

Write what [emotions] you know:

The emotions of characters are what draw most people into a story. Maybe it's an emotion that we wish we had, like when Frodo is brave and says he'll return the ring. Or sometimes it's experiencing someone's heartbreak that draws us to them, like with Peter in the opening of Guardians of the Galaxy

You can create that for your readers too, even if you've never mustered the bravery to go on a long, perilous journey or watched your mother die as a young child. By tapping into the emotional experiences you've hadbravely walking into a new school, having a friend move away, watching your parents go through a divorceyou can apply those to the situations your characters are in. That's how writers who have never been abducted by aliens/been a pregnant teenager/been falsely accused of murder can write those situations in a way that feels emotionally accurate. Jill wrote a great post about that here.

Write what [facts] you know:

Several years ago, I had a friend who was reworking a historical novel of hers that she'd written early in her writing years. She complained about how she was having to research and fix a bunch of things because her young self hadn't bothered to research thoroughly. "Why did I think I could just make up history?" she said to me.

I'm sure she thought she could make it up because she was writing fiction, so what did it matter if a few details aren't exactly right?

This is a tough balance. Yes, we're writing fiction. But part of the magic of creating a storyworld is making it feel like a real, logical place. The ways you do that vary based on genre. For example, if you wrote a contemporary novel and your character didn't have a cell phone, you would need to explain why. But wouldn't it feel strange for Harry Potter to pull out his iPhone and call Dumbledore? Even though it's set in contemporary times, wizards using cell phones would somehow violate the storyworld.

While we never want our research to trump the story (by which I mean writing passages that show off how much research you did on a certain topic) getting our facts right help the readers escape to the world we've created.

Write what [stories] you know:

This part gets a bit touchy-feely.

When I first started to pursue publication, I decided to write serious literature. The kind packed with symbolism that you would study in your English class. The problem was I didn't have ideas for serious literature type novels. Every idea I had was for young adult novels, even before I really knew that was a genre.

Can you imagine how frustrated a person I would be if I had decided I wasn't going to write the kind of stories I wanted, but rather the kind of stories I thought I should want to write?

I wanted to write serious literature because I wanted others to be impressed with me. But when I've written YA stories, it's been because those stories felt like they were a part of me. Like they were an outpouring of my heart. They were stories that I felt like I'd been given, that I felt like I knew.

Stephen King puts it this way: "I was built with a love of the night and the unquiet coffin, that's all. If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It's what I have."

That quote sends a resounding yes through my writer's heart, how about you?

At it's core, writing what you know is really about telling the truth. Digging deep into emotions and daring to put them on the page, embracing the research process instead of shrugging it off, and being true to the stories you're naturally drawn to, even if they don't seem like the "right" kind.


  1. What gives me the warm fuzzies is since everyone is so different, the stories close to my heart will be very different from those of another. And yet, by writing the stories we know, the truth of it will resonate with others.
    Thanks for the insightful post :)


    1. I agree. When we focus on telling the stories that are important to us, there's a much higher chance that it'll connect with someone else as opposed to if we try to write something that doesn't feel authentic to who we are.

  2. This is all so true and beautifully stated. Thank you!

  3. I don't know who this mysterious friend of your is (cough, cough) who didn't bother researching in her younger years, but I feel her pain man. (Cough, Cough. Ahem.)

    Fabulous points. Part of the fun of writing, for me, is learning new things . . . but explaining them always through the emotional context we all relate to.

    1. Yeah, that totally wouldn't have been you ;)

      That's a great way to put it, about the emotional context. That's what makes stories so powerful, the way we're able to step into someone else's experience.

  4. I love that Stephen King quote! That's basically how I feel about it, too--you have to write the stories that are in your own heart . . . not what other people say you "ought" to write. Because that's the only way to write stories that you can actually make real and genuine to your readers.

    1. I'm glad you liked the quote so much. I think it's easy to feel like you need to be able to justify why you write what you write. It was very freeing for me when I realized I didn't owe anyone an explanation :)

  5. Love this post! (And I've loved Jill's post ever since she wrote it...I still remember the spider-shampoo bottle example of "murder." Ha!) I think so much of writing what you know does come from realizing the core emotion of something, because that core emotion is what allows you to relate to other people in life as well as stories.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Also, oh gosh, I just went to look at that post and realized it's from 2012. And I remember reading it the day it was originally posted. (And there's my comment right there at the top...exclamation points galore.)

      I guess I'm officially a GTW oldie now? I feel old, anyway. That was a long time ago. :P

    2. We're honored that you've chosen to hang out with us all these years, Amanda!