Writers in the Storm

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February 20, 2012

THROWDOWN: Write What You Know vs Write What You Don't Know

By Laura Drake

I’m probably the poster child for the "Write what you know" side of the throwdown.

Why?  I’ll out myself at the end of this post. Let me answer the easy one first.


For the last ten years I’ve had an obsession (yeah, another one.) Pro Bull Riding. I never miss it on TV, and when it’s not televised, I’ve been known to sit on Twitter for hours, waiting for people at the event to Tweet the rider’s scores. I’ve attended all local events, and been to the finals in Vegas twice -- once in a cast and a wheelchair because I broke my leg.

No way I was going to miss it.

Everyone knows I’m a bull riding geek. My boss even bought me a poster of Chris Shivers for my office.

I’ve written and sold three books, all set in the world of Pro Bull Riding. Did I do it because I knew it, or because I love it? Probably both.

I also ride motorcycles. I rode behind my husband on his for 100,000 miles. Then I learned to ride.

I now own two and have logged 100,000 miles of my own.

I wrote a novel about a girl who rides across the country on her motorcycle.

Okay, now the embarrassing part -- Why do I write what I know?

The same reason I could never be a teacher. And why the mere thought of writing Historical novels makes me break out in a sweat.  I have this secret fear that someone is going to discover that I don't know what I'm talking about. They're going to point at me, out me as a poser, and prove that I'm a fraud.

If I teach a class, you can be sure I know a LOT about the subject, because I live in fear of someone raising their hand and asking a question I can't answer. I know it's dumb. I don't expect a teacher to know everything. I don't expect any expert to know everything.

Only me.

I don't get it ether, but there it is.

So, here's where it gets fun -- we love to see which side of the throwdown you're on, and why. Do tell!

0 comments on “THROWDOWN: Write What You Know vs Write What You Don't Know”

  1. If writers wrote only what they know I'd think their books would become boring to their readers.
    Have you heard of "Writing to Learn"?

    1. Sorry to tag on to Melinda. I'm working out my problems with WP.

      I think the expression "write what you know" has been misunderstood for years. What we know instinctively, those insights we have into the heart of people, the characters we create ... they are amalgoms of everyone we have met or seen.

      Are you writing what you know, or what you have grown to love?Haven't you used your love of bull riding to create characters who resemble what you think people in that world are like, what they do? You didn't have to become part of the bull riding circuit to write your books. When we fall in love with an era (Kristina McMorris and the WWII era) or in love with a setting (my books about NYC), we mix our love of something with what we know, with what we later learn. Oh, and Melinda, there have been few truly great fantasy writers who did not use the concept of an alternate universe, quantum physics and the belief of all civilizations in angels, demons and other worlds. It's is a worn out cliche but it works ... "When everything old is new again."

    2. I was doing a writing for children course last year and the teacher said, we should only EVER write what we know. If we want to write about kayaking we need to go take a lesson in riding a kayak, etc. I found that incredibly depressing because I too write fantasy. I thought of the book I was mid-way through writing, and I thought I don't know anything first-hand about telepathy, astral travel, shape-shifting, etc, etc, so what the hell am I supposed to do??? It really stumped me for a couple of months.
      Then I realized I write fantasy, I simply can't "know" it. From then on it was like taking a deep breath and letting it go 🙂

      1. Me again, Melinda. Just wanted to say also, that after that I read a great article by a writer who said it's only by writing what we don't know that great fiction is born. So there you go!
        Yvette Carol

      2. Hi, Yvette. I have to weigh in on your comment, since I'm taking the other side of the throwdown on Wednesday. How can we, as fantasy, sci fi or paranormal writers, absolutely kow what we write about? We might have certain beliefs, but I have never met a vampire or werewolf. True, Ernest Hemingway wrote only what he lived through. But what about J.K. Rowling's Hogwarts? And can you say Twilight Saga? Rules are made to be broken, but I'll get into that on Wednesday.

  2. I think when you come down to it all writers write what they know, regardless of what genre they are writing. You start off with a story about some snippet of something you know and let it build. As you go along, you do research to fill in what you DON'T know.

    Even with fantasy you will incorporate elements of what you already know to create a new world.

    I really can't see how any writer can say they write what they don't.

    1. Hi Carrie,
      I've thought about this quite a bit, ever since Laura suggested the topic about six months ago. I do write what I know about--emotions, human characters with human flaws and hopes and dreams. I write about love conquering all, something I know very well. I write about characters who are driven by my plot. That's something that I know how to do.

      But then, I write about a lot of stuff I don't know, like flying a space craft. I do drive a sports car and sometimes I think of it as a fighter jet, but it's not really the same thing, even on the freeways of Southern California.

      When I build a new world it's recognizable to my readers in many ways, because if everything required massive description I'd have a very boring book filled with definitions of words and settings of alien landscape. Rules that govern the world are important. If readers understand why the world works the way it does, they can suspend belief long enough to get into the characters and plot. But when there is a "wrinkle" in the world's fabric, I can't research and I don't know the answer to my crit groups's question until I use my imagination and figure out a plausible reason for the wrinkle or a solution to smooth out the wrinkle. We're not talking plot or character problems here, every writer encounters those and has to use the tools they've learned to fix those problems.

      So yes, some of what I write I know. My voice, I know. My writing style, I know. Writing skills I know. But most of my writing subject matter comes from my deep within my imagination. Maybe it's best I don't know everything in that box!


      1. Yeah that's a really good way of putting it Fae! Even when my characters aren't human I still write 'what I know' by infusing them with my humanness and the rest comes from my imagination....which it is impossible to know, being endless and infinite!
        Yvette Carol

  3. I create what I don't know when writing my MG fantasy series in the light fantasy "world building."

    But, as I draw close to the rewrite versus first draft and outline phase, I find myself in need of company in the age group for which I'm writing. Do you suppose it would embarrass my ten-year-old granddaughter if Glowie followed her around at school?

    Yes? Drat!

    I can only call forth my ten year old snark (and insecurities) for so long. She'll spread herself thin when called to support a cast of four MC's. (One POV throughout, before I hear the *gasps*.)

    So, I THINK I sit on your side of this topic, Laura, for the characters and situational snark.

    World-building and fantasy characters? THOSE live in my imaginary world, so, in a highly convoluted way, I'm writing what I know.

    1. Wow, Gloria, you can do both? Ambidexterous! I'm impressed...I'd never have the guts to try! You, and all of you on the other side have my admiration!

  4. I've written what I know in my novels for a long time. This time, in my suspense, I'm venturing onto new ground. It involves research and a great deal of imagination comparitively. But I also find the work is better since I am not restricted by my reality. Karen Lin

    1. Now that's facinating, Karen. I'd be interested to know what made you stray from what you know - did you get facinated by a topic?

      I think others (who have said it better than I, above) are right - what you know came from what you didn't know . . . which is first, the chicken or the egg? As always with these throwdowns, I learn something by looking at I side I never ventured into. I may not ever try it, but I understand it better.

  5. For myself I like starting with something I do know, and they spinning it out into the realm of imagination and wonder with the "What if" game. I find that if I try to write what I know I get stuck in the details and find myself cornered by facts, unable to let the story flow.
    I have to step away from that and get outside of what I know to what the story knows. I have to let the muse lead so to speak.
    That said, I believe all good stories hold kernels of truth, nuggets of universality. That's what makes them resonate with us. So I write from what I know, but I write to what I can dream.

      1. I'm the same! If I stick too much to 'what I know' it's like putting my feet in concrete, kills the creativity dead. Thank goodness there are people out there who understand!!
        Yvette Carol

  6. What I see in the comments is that if we don't exactly know a subject, we infuse what we "do" know. I write historicals so on one hand, hey, I didn't live in the 1800s but on the other, I study the history so then I know it. Ha! It didn't hurt that I grew up with people who loved old timey sayings and lingo and talked about all the crazie ancesters in the family. So there's a lot of love and respect for the subject I write. That's important too. 🙂

  7. "Write what you know" if taken literally would eliminate most of the books on the shelves--unless all those mystery/thriller writers actually have practical murder experience. *s*

    My WIP features an animal behaviorist/dog trainer so I know that stuff backwards and forwards. But I know nothing of guns, or Autism or a host of other things in the book and learned about it through research. For nonfiction books, the same--the author starts "knowing" some things but learns more and may even change attitude through the process (I wasn't a fan of 'natural' medicine until I wrote a book about it!). But authors can also take research too far, and so can experts. You only need to show the reader the tip of the iceberg, even if the author needs to know the whole icy flow. Great post!

    1. I love it. I know Elizabeth George and I'm pretty sure she's never killed anyone--especially in England!--but she does a marvelous job with those poor murdered souls in her books.
      And you're absolutely right. I love learning a little bit about all kinds of things, but sometimes I feel like I'm on the Titanic and the iceberg of information has crashed into me because the author is telling me every bit of research!

  8. I share your fear of people figuring out I don't know what I'm talking about. I think I would overwhelm myself with research if I were to attempt a historical novel because there are just so many things I do not know.

    However, I do agree with commenters who have said writing what you know has as much to do with understanding emotion and response as it does to having had every adventure imaginable under the sun. I mean, I could set out to write a book about Amelia Earheart, and there is no way I could ever *really* know what it was like to fly a plane in that era. Nor could I really understand what her last moments were like.

    For the record, I think pro bull riding is interesting. Two of my cousins did the pro bull riding circuit back in the 80s. They both retired by their mid-20s due to injuries, but it was fun to go watch them when the opportunity arose.

    Great post. Keep on rockin'.

    1. In thinking some more about this, Catie, I think writing what you love is the key. You may not know all about it, but if you love it, that's going to come through. Thanks for your comments.

  9. Wow! Your blog post sounds like me. I have written about how new authors should 'write what they know' which is why I based my first sold manuscript in New York City and Baltimore-2 cities I know well- & my latest involves firefighters (I was one). Then, I branched out with Scottish dragons. Never been to Scotland, but found research helped me. So, start with what you know, then follow your heart.
    Nancy Lee Badger
    author of SOUTHERN FRIED DRAGON (created after a trip to Fort Sumter)

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