Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 12, 2024

Uncovering the truth behind “Write what you know”

by Miffie Seideman

Mark Twain quote - write what you know

If you’ve been penning stories for any length of time, you’ve already been exposed to countless writing tips. One such tip is “Write what you know.” This well-meaning phrase is not only often misunderstood, but also creates angst and even creative blocks among writers. 

“Write what you know” has often been strictly interpreted as a literal directive to develop stories based only on a writer’s personal life. In other words, only write what you have personally lived and experienced. 

Oh, so wrong!

On one hand, this interpretation is very wrong. If we followed that advice, our writing repertoire would be drastically limited (not to mention boring and repetitive). It would mean I’d mostly be writing about training for triathlons or creating primers on properly dosing medication in critically ill patients. And as passionate as I am about these subjects, even I’d be bored writing yet another article on proper swim stroke technique or drug calculations. 

And…so right! 

On the other hand, “Write what you know” is perfectly correct. 

Wait! How can that be? 

Well, it boils down to definition. Importantly, it’s the meaning of the word “know” that needs to be better understood.

If you ask someone what they know, after some hesitation, you’ll likely get just a list of basic talents related to work, life, or school. 

I’m a nurse. I know how to bandage wounds, take a temperature, give my patient medications…

Ask them to dig a little deeper and they might begin to uncover a wider array of knowledge. For example, nurses know the suffering of their patients and how to help ease their pain. They know the joy of healing, the grief of loss, etc. 

Encourage them to explore even deeper and the list may grow to include more intimate lessons, such as personal loss, loneliness, fears, desires, wants, disappointments, and so much more. 

Now, we’re getting to what they “know.”

What this person has finally delved into are their deepest “lived experiences”, from emotional to physical to mental. And we all have a wealth of them. Some make us happy to recall, others not so much. George R.R. Martin has referred to these lived experiences as the “emotional truth of your own life” and suggests they help writers create more compelling stories and characters. 

So now, when you weave a nurse into your plot, she doesn’t just bandage Mr. Jones’ wound or give him his next dose of chemotherapy. She talks to him, feels for him, worries for him, and tries to support him. She’ll also be comforting his worried family. Later, she may hold his head over a bedpan while he vomits or hold his hand when he’s in pain. 

When I taught pharmacy students how to dose premature neonates in the ICU, they learned much better when I had them apply what I was explaining to them. It’s the same process I incorporated into The Grim Reader—not just explaining how to realistically write a perilous drug scene, but giving the opportunity to practice using exercises in every chapter.

If you’d like to have a working list of your own “knows” when you sit down to craft your next story, try this little exercise to get you started:

  • Task-based “knows”:
    • Start a list of some basic, practical tasks or knowledge you’ve learned in order to function in your job, life, or career. Maybe you’re a college student and understand dorm life, cafeteria food, the challenges of noisy roommates, and the stress of studying all night for a test. Or maybe you’re an engineer, or dog groomer, or a housewife. All of these experiences offer a pool of valid “knows” to draw from when writing. 
  • Life experiences:
    • Add a second list of non-work-related experiences you’ve had, such as skydiving, riding a horse, or hiking. Maybe sewing your kids’ clothes when they ripped, raising a puppy, giving birth, or breaking your arm.  
  • Life Lessons:
    • Add a list of lessons you’ve learned, especially through emotionally impactful events. These can include things that are both good or bad, such as betrayal, loyalty, heartbreak, or hope.
  • Raw emotions you intimately know:
    • Finally, add a list of emotions you’ve personally experienced (love, sadness, happiness, grief, etc.)

See how much you know? 

These lists help provide the tools to help you turn a character from a flat 2-dimensional protagonist to one the reader relates to, empathizes with, or even hates. They will also help you take your reader on a memorable adventure. 

What “know” doesn’t mean

Image of two mountainous rocks sticking up out of an ocean. with a view of the sun rising over the ocean in the distance. Each rock has a building on it, the one on the left is a tower, the one on the right is a castle.Three dragons soar with their wings spread above the ocean,one in the distance, one in the middle distance and one seeming about to leap on the castle.

It was never intended that “Write what you know” would suggest that you can only write stories involving those lists you just developed. I’m pretty sure George R. R. Martin has never seen real dragons, and yet he’s been able to develop engrossing stories, with deep, rich characters and twisty plots heavily involving these beasts. 

How? 

He didn’t restrict himself to only writing solely based on his own life experiences, but combined them with imagination, some good old-fashioned writing craft, and research. You, too, can write evocative and compelling stories that go beyond your own experiences. 

All the first-hand knowledge about your emotional truths is not going to help you create an accurate and believable story involving a real event, place, or experience you know nothing about. The worst thing a writer can do at this stage is decide to make the facts up. Yes, imagination is key to writing. But there is a line beyond which your readers will identify you as fake (especially if they know more about the subject than you do). 

For example, a number of movies have scenes involving blatantly incorrect drug effects. From the character that instantly passes out from a chloroform-soaked rag across her face to the victim who dies within seconds of an insulin overdose—these scenes are not real. Fact has been abandoned for dramatic effect. The outcome? The reviews amongst my pharmacist, nurse, and physician co-workers have been unforgiving, saving the rest of us from the need to spend time and money on a poorly written storyline.

These kinds of errors risk pulling today’s savvy readers out of the story you’ve crafted for them. In some cases, this can end up losing readers and generating bad reviews.

Image of a 5 ml syringe with an uncapped needle resting on the cap, the plunger of the syringe is pulled back to 1ml mark.

What if your character needs to parachute to safety from an airplane, but you’ve never experienced the thrill of the free-fall before you pull your chute? Or you’re planning to have a villain knock out your heroine with a sedative, without ever having felt the effects of that kind of medication yourself? 

A good first step is to begin by making a list of the story elements you need to understand before beginning to write. Then, research, research, research! But be careful. With the internet, there’s not only a world of good information at your fingertips, but also a lot of false information. Vetting your resources will be extremely important. A few places to start include: 

Librarians

Librarians are an often-overlooked valuable resource to find valid references and books on specific subjects, such as skydiving.

Videos and documentaries

Almost any subject can be found researched through online videos. 

Specialist Interviews

Speaking directly to a specialist or someone that has lived the very experience you’re writing about is another way to gain enough knowledge to believably develop your scene. For example, in order to help writers understand the barriers a homeless character would face when seeking addiction treatment, I interviewed medical specialists working with that population, before including that information in The Grim Reader. What an eye opener that was!

Visit the location

If you have the resources, visit the area you’re writing about. Interact with the locals, see how they live, talk, work. But also, realize you’re only seeing an outsider’s viewpoint and consider asking a local resident to beta read your scenes. A less costly option for geographical research can include travel videos. From the magnificent waterfalls in Iguazu to the rock cliff walls of the Grand Canyon, travel videos can offer astounding insight.  

Yes! But now that you understand this tip is not a restrictive edict, as well as how to apply it, you should feel much more empowered as a writer. 

Did you try the exercise on listing your “knows”? Did you make any discoveries? Has your writing been hampered by the “Write what you know” recommendation in the past? Share your experiences with other writers in the comments. 

* * * * * *

About Miffie

Miffie Seideman has been a pharmacist for over 30 years, with a passion for helping others. Her research articles have appeared in professional pharmacy journals. She blended her passion for pharmacy and her love of writing into THE GRIM READER: Putting Your Characters in Peril (A Pharmacist’s Guide For Authors), being published January 16th, 2024 by Red Lightening Books and Indiana University Press (on X at #ReadRLB and @iupress). She’s represented by Amy Collins with Talcott Notch Literary Services.  

An avid triathlete, Miffie spends countless hours training in the arid deserts of Arizona, devising new plots for her upcoming fantasy love story. She can be found hanging around her website http://GrimReaders.com offering tips to writers and on X @MiffieSeideman…you know…tweeting. Contact her at info@grimreaders.com/ 

Image Credits 

  • Twain Quote: Depositphotos
  • Dragon/fantasy:  KELLEPICS, Pixabay
  • Thinking man: GDJ, Pixabay
  • Syringe/needle, Miffie Seideman

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22 comments on “Uncovering the truth behind “Write what you know””

  1. I was doing a critique of a story by an author friend. He had a character knocked unconscious,but very shortly after recovering consciousness, she was back to normal. I pointed this out to him and he corrected it.

    It is important to research what you don't know. I had a person dying of stomach cancer in one of my books. I made sure I understood all the symptoms.

    But, yes, I agree with everything you say about what 'knowing' means.

    1. Yes, those details are so important to get right. And as writers, we research so much already, pertinent facts for drug scenes or disease symptoms should be no different. Thanks for dropping by!

  2. Hi Miffie!

    The "write what you know" baffled me. I decided that research was King and followed my intuition, which worked.

    I like your explanation of expanding what you know and using that to create stories. Fantastic idea.

    The exercise you've included looks super helpful. I'll give it a try.

    Great post!

  3. I love this. Write what you know stumped me for years. Eventually, I figured research would help me "know." I love asking Librarians for sources for something they've never researched before. And I can definitely vouch for going to the location. Visiting the towns and regions where much of my Fellowship Dystopia series is set gave me tons of real details to us as well as some unexpected bits that gave me a great plot enhancement idea.

    1. Hi Lynette! I love getting those unexpected ideas for stories by visiting a location, that might otherwise never have revealed themselves. I'm looking forward to a trip to Scotland this year for the same reason. Thanks for your insight! Good luck with your writing.

  4. Great post, Miffie! One of the classic writing mistakes that I've witnessed is when an author likes to write about a private plane, but they haven't researched the type of plane. They often list the controls as if they were a car, or completely the wrong era for the plane they are describing. This always annoys my husband so much that he can't read the book. I've seen best selling novelists fall victim to this.

    Our librarians have amazingly curated sources of information that are stunning and available through an online portal.

    One of my author friends was writing a scene (in a historical) and she was tempted to make it up. I suggested we research it instead. What we found was more amazing than anything we could have come up with!

    1. The real facts are often so much more interesting than we can imagine, and offer so many more plot twists. I always feel bad for writers that have shortchanged themselves, and their readers, by not taking that extra time to do a bit of research. It sounds like the plane details get to your husband the way the medication details get to me! Good luck with your writing in 2024, Lisa.

  5. This is great. I am definitely a write what I know writer— and often, do what you suggest. Starting from a place of an experience I have had and going deeper, or bending it or imagining some other scene of it! In order to write, I have to start from a place that I have some familiarity with and then I find I can take it anywhere!

  6. Excellent article! I think you nailed the right way to think about “knowing.” Obviously a literal interpretation of that would mean no fantasy or SF could ever be written, and all of us mystery writers would have to quit. I mean, I’ve never killed anyone, found a dead body, or solved a crime. But between research and imagination I can make my characters do those things.

    I want to play with your exercise about knowing.

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