Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Writing What You Know

If you've ever read any of the myriad of books on writing, one of the biggest rules seems to be 'write what you know'.

I disagree.

I think you should write what makes your imagination fly.

I don't want to place my stories in my actual location - it doesn't fire my imagination. It's home. It's familiar. Nor do I want to write about situations I know or have experienced. Honestly, how many stories could you write about taking care of children and trying to keep a house somewhat clean? Perhaps you could write hundreds - it leaves me dry.

If I took this caveat to heart, I could write about the theatre - and I must admit I've given it some thought. Non-theatre people (known as civilians) are often fascinated with what goes on behind the curtain, or in the rehearsal hall. The problem is the reality of that world isn't as glamourous as people think. It isn't a world filled with feuding - most of the time. Most actors, offstage, are fairly regular people. So are directors. No one calls each other 'darling' or slinks around while flicking their cigarette-holders. It's work. Learn your lines. Do the show. Worry about getting another job.

I don't live in England - nor do I live in the 1930s or 40s. But this is the time and place that makes my imagination fly. It's impossible for me to learn too much about it - my bookcases are filled with books and I watch every documentary, movie or television series I can about the period. I find it endlessly fascinating.

It's not what I know from living it. But, I guess, in a way, I am writing what I know.

How about you? Do you write what you know?


  1. Hallelujah! I have had issues with that comment from the first moment I read it. Write what I know? How boring!!!

    But then again...

    We research and ponder and imagine and we DO know the places and things that are untouched by our footprints. I agree. I disagree. Isn't that what makes writing grand?


  2. Maybe the adage should be write what you're inspired about.

  3. I think I do a little of both. I write about locations I’m familiar with but situations that I’m not.

    Author Rose Tremain said it well in advice she recently gave in an article in the Guardian. She said, “Forget the boring old dictum "write about what you know". Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that's going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.”

  4. Jen; It's a quandary, isn't it? It's not what you know, but you do know. You know?

    Carol; Perhaps. Or maybe write about anything you can spend that long writing about.

    Jane; I wish I had that kind of knowledge.

  5. I guess when you've read and watched as much about a subject or time period as you have, Elspeth – you ARE in effect, writing about what you know.

    I know more about the films and stars of the 30s/40s than I do about the movies and "stars" of today!

  6. I write what I know a lot, but I've had such a diverse, sometimes dangerous, atypical and varied array of life experiences I have a large basket to pull stuff out of. Even so, I do write outside of "what I know" first-hand, I don't believe in that restriction. That's what the internet and research are for, right? I mean, if God didn't want us to write outside of what we know, why did He invent Google? (wink)

    Marvin D Wilson

  7. Crystal; Aha! Another fan. Excellent.

    Old Silly; For me, it's often a case of familiarity breeding contempt - and perhaps, that I have a rather small basket in comparison to many!

  8. Elspeth - That's an interesting question (as yours always are). I feel most comfortable writing about settings I know, mostly because it's easier for me to be accurate. But I do write about situations I can only imagine. For instance, in my latest novel, the protagonist is a musical virtuosa. I've never performed competitively, so I can't write about that life from experience. In that sense, I let my imagination fly. But it's grounded in a world I know, if that makes any sense.

  9. Karen; What a wise observance and what a frightening one! I don't know if I'm that deep!

    Margot; I completely understand your situation - which much more sane than mine! I think writing an imaginary situation in a known setting may be the best of both worlds and one many writers choose.

  10. Imagination is a wonderful thing to let go and see where it takes you.

  11. Not so much. :) If I wrote what I know, it would be incredibly boring and definitely wouldn't include any dead bodies....


  12. I do. In fact, writing what I know gives me the springboard for my creativity to go to the places I don't know. It's always a jumping off point for me. And it may be a little bit of comfort zone, too. I started off writing creative nonfiction, so that may be why it's so natural to want to go that way. But characters come alive in truly neat ways between familiar point A and familiar point B. It just works for me.

    Writing from the starting point of what I don't know would probably scare the crap out of me.

  13. Mason; I completely agree.

    Elizabeth; Strangely enough, I don't seem to have dead bodies cropping up all over either...

    Elisa; I've gathered you're one who writes what you know - certainly as far as your mc's background - it does seem rather familiar!

  14. I like this. I've always assumed that axiom meant what I could know/learn/imagine... That way I can write what I like :)

  15. I like to use settings I know, but I want the plot to involve things I've never done and events I need to research. Research is half the fun.

  16. I agree but I have a difficult situation. So often people tell me- write about Botswana people want to read that. But my stories don't always come out set in Botswana and ones set here often seem flat. What if the place you live is a place people find interesting but you don't feel like writing about it all of the time?


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