Write What You Know?

The Henderson Clan

My father, David (far right), and his siblings (and parents).

One thing “new”1 writers often hear is “write what you know.” It’s told to us as a hard-and-fast Rule of Writing™ that Must Not Be Broken™. Or something.

“Class, write one thousand words by Friday.”

“But, Mrs. Teacher, what do we write?” ask the worried students.

“Just write about what you know, dear,” she says, a knowing smile on her face.

Well, sure. That’s easy. I could write about being an only child growing up in a small town in rural Alabama, going to a private school, getting together with my friends and riding bicycles all over town after school and during the summer. I could expound at great length upon being an only grandchild (on one side) or what it’s like to spend all day at the municipal swimming pool in chlorinated water, getting a sunburn, and then doing it all again for 90 straight days during the summer. I could wax poetic over what Halloween was like in the 1970s in small-town Alabama. I could go on for hours about computers and the Internet and all the books I read or the podcasts I listen to. Get me started on the wonders of the universe and science and learning for the sake of learning and you’ll have to physically restrain me to get me to stop.

But . . . I write science fiction, fantasy, horror, and urban fantasy. You know, faster than light travel, teleportation, magic, vampires, werewolves, Things That Go Bump in the Night™, aliens, zombies, alien zombies, alien werewolf vampire zombies going faster than light using magic to escape from killer robots from the future . . . like that.

I don’t know any of that. And that’s where that “rule” breaks down. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great rule. For beginners. Because if you know something, you’re passionate about it. I think experienced writers and teachers tell learners that so they’ll want to write about something and therefore spend the writing time it takes to get the million words of crap out so the good words can start spilling forth.2

But at some point, you have to start writing about what you don’t know. Can’t know. One of the first stories I ever completed was about a pregnant woman who started losing time every day. Do I know what it’s like to be a woman? Or pregnant? Or married? No, no, and no.

But here’s the thing. As you mature as a writer, you develop the ability to extrapolate.

I am an only child. I was supposed to be the first of three. But I was born and was apparently (according to my mother) such a horrible child (colic) that they decided one was plenty. I try *twitch* not to let that *twitch* bother me. I think I’m doing *twitch* quite well, actually. So does my therapist.3

My mother, Carlene, and her brother.

My mother, Carlene, and her brother.

But I can imagine what it’s like to have a sibling. My father had three brothers and four sisters, and I’ve heard many, many tales of what life was like for them growing up with so many people around. My mother has a younger brother, and I’ve also heard tales of their mutual childhood.

Aside from that, I have friends I consider members of my family. I have a housemate. I have twenty first cousins on my father’s side. I used to babysit for my mother’s friend, who had a boy and girl six and seven years younger than me, respectively. So I can extrapolate from all that what it might be like to have a little brother or sister, older sibling, or twin. Do I get it perfect? Probably not. But there are as many different types of families as there are people, so I figure if I get it wrong, people will assume that’s just how it is in that family and move on. :)

Now, here’s the funny part. As I was writing this post over the course of a few hours on Sunday night, I had a sudden realization. In my current work in progress, which I’m calling Death Scene, I have a main character Nick Damon, who had a brother Jacob, but Jacob died while they were still young. Another character Javier Ellis, is an only child. As is Charlotte (Chuck) Norris. And Manuel Gutierrez. And Lena Saunders. And Monique Johnson. And Terence Yamato. And Derek Meads. And . . .

I have managed to write what I know without realizing I was doing it. Literally all my characters are only children, essentially. How did I let that happen?

Time to rethink a few things. :)


Group Blogging Exchange 2

Today’s post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)’s Week 109 prompt: Sibling(s).

  1. I’ve been writing one way or another since I was 11. So I’m hardly ‘new,’ but since I’m also not a professional writer until I sell my writing (which, granted, would be much more likely to happen if I submitted frequently), I use ‘new’ here in that sense.
  2. There is a well-known(?) rule of thumb that says a writer must write a million words of crap and get them out of her system before she gets to the good words. It’s an arbitrary number, sure, and if all you do is glurge words day after day with no attempt at improvement, you’re never going to get to the “good” ones.
  3. I actually don’t have a therapist, but the joke was too good to let pass . . . ;)

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16 Responses to “Write What You Know?”
  1. Liss Thomas says:

    Nailed it! My fiction would be very boring if I only wrote what I know.

    • Indeed. I can’t imagine how boring it would be if you wrote, “She thought there was a monster under her bed, but it was only dust bunnies. She vacuumed. The End.” :)

  2. I write what I know. Good thing I know a lot:)

    • You write memoir, so it’s a good thing. Luckily, you’re talented enough to make actual events interesting to read. Your jury duty sequence had a lot of people riveted. :)

  3. But you do write what you know – in your imagination.

  4. daphne says:

    love your style…. thanks for stopping by my site…

  5. Jo Heroux says:

    This is really nice. Writing about what you know to me is kinda like writing about who you are. I find that most of my characters are either like me, or better yet, like the me that I wish I was. I seem to like to write about life in a small town, with which I am familiar, and women who are the leading and sort of heroic ones, which I wish I was.

    So…yep, intentional or not, I do think our best work is the world we know about from some angle.

    Although, there is a lot to be said for a world we can only imagine.

    • I just can’t believe I didn’t notice that they were all only children. I was telling some fellow writers last night at my critique group about this. One of them looked at me askance. “What are the chances of that in real life?”

      “Oh, I’m giving siblings to several of the characters,” I said. “There is no way this many people could all be only children by chance.”

      Which then gave me a brief idea for something odd for the characters to notice, but then I kicked THAT thought out of my head. :)

  6. Kathy says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading about what you know. I had a little problem writing about this topic since my sister and I don’t speak…but I got through it and made a blog out of it. It is kind of like you subconsciously write characters that are only children. That is wild.


    • Thanks, Kathy. Sorry it took me a while to notice your comment. It got marked as Spam.

      I enjoyed your post, as well. I find it sad when family doesn’t speak. My mother’s family has a few like that, and I just don’t get it. Life is too short. But on the other hand, life is too short to saddle yourself with people who don’t want to be associated with you, either.

  7. Suzy says:

    How interesting that you ended up writing what you know. An interesting concept – I never thought about it that way. I just write mostly free write and sometimes the things I write surprise me hugely.
    Dropping by from “Siblings”
    Suzy http://ilasoulpoems.blogspot.co.nz/2013/06/siblings.html

    • This novel I talk about here started as a free write exercise. “Write a first sentence every day.” One day I sat down and wrote: The man Nick Damon had come to kill was already dead. I liked it so much I ended up writing more than 50,000 words on that novel, making it up as I went. Over time, it morphed into now at least four novels, and that first line is gone, and that novel is now the third one in the series. I’m working on writing novel one right now.

      It’s amazing where the seat of your pants can lead. :)

  8. Joyce says:

    Making your characters only children is not surprising at all. Many of my stories end up in St. Louis where I grew up.


    • Heh…if my stories were all set in Eutaw, AL (population 1800), I’d run out of things to write pretty fast.

      Well, actually, I wouldn’t. But it wouldn’t be the sort of things that most of them would approve of. ;)

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