1. jazzabel
    Offline

    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2012
    Messages:
    4,273
    Likes Received:
    1,666

    Can you be bothered to write what you know?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by jazzabel, Jan 31, 2012.

    One of the most common tips a new writer gets is “Write what you know.”
    In my case, I don’t find writing about my job or my life remotely interesting.
    So even though I could write a very accurate portrayal of someone fictional who does the same job as me in real life, I choose not to because I find it too boring. There are just too many considerations to portray the job fairly, to acknowledge various struggles people face in it, the ethics of it, so my focus is just not very fun. Instead it's mundane, cautious, humdrum, matter of fact.
    If all writers felt this way, than nobody would actually “write what they know”.

    What do you think? Do you write what you know best, or what you are inspired by and can make educated guesses about?
     
  2. TheIllustratedMan
    Offline

    TheIllustratedMan Active Member

    Joined:
    Jan 14, 2009
    Messages:
    170
    Likes Received:
    6
    Personally, I think the meaning is more along the lines of "Know what you write." You draw on personal experience, and you research the rest. What's really important is the emotion, and that's where you can really "Write what you know."

    "You might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see.'" - The Hatter.
     
  3. jonsnana
    Offline

    jonsnana Member

    Joined:
    Jan 16, 2012
    Messages:
    32
    Likes Received:
    1
    Location:
    Arizona
    Agreed!!! Although it is sometimes funny to realize that a person has based a marvelous shortstory on Chem 101, how can a person write anything knowledgable about aliens. We have imaginations and it is fun to see where our dreams take us.
     
  4. jazzabel
    Offline

    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2012
    Messages:
    4,273
    Likes Received:
    1,666
    I think you are right. But it seems like such a waste, not to write about something you don't have to spend hours researching.
    I think aliens and other things nobody has any real experience of are different. Nobody has a "better idea" of what they are like, so imagination is ok. With real-life topics (jobs, specific experiences which are not universal) you can't use imagination much because there are lots of people who can say "Sorry, that's not how that works". As soon as that happens, all suspended disbelief disappears and that's not a good thing.
     
  5. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    Write what you know on an emotional level. That's the stuff you can't just google. Write about pain you have felt, or joy, or love, or despair. Those are universal, and yet individually unique.

    Strip away the mundane. No one wants to read it, any more than you want to write it. But getting an honest look inside another human's heart and soul, that never gets old.
     
  6. jazzabel
    Offline

    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2012
    Messages:
    4,273
    Likes Received:
    1,666
    You are right Cogito, and of course that's the real juice of every story. I was more talking about the setting. Like, if I want to explore the battle between good and evil, or man vs society or justice will prevail or what have you, I can set it in a context of a hospital, a legal firm, University, police procedure, politics, sci fi, fantasy...There are so many possibilities to choose from.
     
  7. jc.
    Offline

    jc. Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jan 25, 2012
    Messages:
    251
    Likes Received:
    10
    Location:
    Hawaii
    ITA with Cogito. People can see right through the bluff.
     
  8. UrbanBanshee
    Offline

    UrbanBanshee Member

    Joined:
    Jan 27, 2012
    Messages:
    70
    Likes Received:
    3
    Location:
    Seattle
    How I always took the "write what you know" was if you didn't know the answer figure it out before you wrote it. Mainly when it came to a story. Don't know how the old man got the orb of awesomeness? Figure out how.
     
  9. TDFuhringer
    Offline

    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2012
    Messages:
    589
    Likes Received:
    262
    Location:
    Somewhere South of Midnight
    I've always found the advice "write what you know" to be confusing. I agree with what everyone is saying about emotion, absolutely. But the idea of writing what you know is boring. It's more fun to do the research on how policing works or how ships work or how priests are ordained, things I don't know, whatever the subject. If you do your research well and inject your characters with honest emotion, I'd rather do (and read) that than something that's essentially autobiographical.
     
  10. Jowettc
    Offline

    Jowettc Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jan 23, 2012
    Messages:
    207
    Likes Received:
    8
    I think that for me, the phrase 'write what you know' means more 'write what you are passionate about'. I think that often, attempting to spread their artistic wings, writers try to explore new areas and ideas alien to them. And that is fine.
    But unless you have a passion for those new ideas, then I feel the writing comes across as dry and boring. Talking to someone who has a passion for something is never boring and always exciting. I think the same of authors. If they are writing about something they genuinely are passionate about, it comes out in their stories.
    Writing is not an exploration of exacting grammar but a story that someone felt should be told. As such, it should be a story delivered with passion and not an attempt at a literary exercise, in my opinion.
     
    1 person likes this.
  11. jazzabel
    Offline

    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2012
    Messages:
    4,273
    Likes Received:
    1,666
    All of your answers are really interesting! i always took the phrase literally, but I see there is a lot more possibility in looking at it in a different way.
     
  12. Cacian
    Offline

    Cacian Banned

    Joined:
    Oct 25, 2011
    Messages:
    1,907
    Likes Received:
    5
    I write what I know in terms of words and feelings and what is correct from not and by doing that I tend to write and discover things and ideas that I did not know Ihad.
    I am not a 'silent thinker'. I tend to come up with new ideas and clues as I speak or write.
    This is how I think. I have never been good at being quite and thinking things true on my own. Ihave to have a base of ideas which I can do on my onw but the best new ideas Ihad/have was/is by either writing or talking.
    You could imagine I did my partner's head in sometimes because I go on talking until I find the answer/clue I was/am looking for.:p
     
  13. Tesoro
    Offline

    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 3, 2011
    Messages:
    2,825
    Likes Received:
    290
    Location:
    A place with no future
    I agree with Cog. That is what I try to do. It would bore me to death if I had to limit myself to writing about my hometown (as most writers do around here) and use only my own professional experiences. I want to discover too when I write, I wanna learn new stuff, see new places, meet interesting people. I use what I know when it comes to emotions or personal experiences, but I set my stories in places that fascinates me, not the ones I know inside out.
     
  14. spklvr
    Offline

    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 29, 2010
    Messages:
    734
    Likes Received:
    36
    Location:
    Sarpsborg, Norway
    When it comes to settings I like to stick to what I know, which is why (unless I make it up), my stories are usually set in New York or Santa Fe (lived in both places). Sometimes I think it's a shame I don't write more about Norway, but my country can be kind of boring. At least in this day and age. I love the viking age and norse mythology.

    Oddly enough, I just realized that none of my characters have jobs... or at least no mentioned jobs. I think in one unfinished story I gave up on long ago, the protag went to work quite often, but what he actually did there was never mentioned....
     
  15. shadowwalker
    Offline

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2011
    Messages:
    3,299
    Likes Received:
    851
    I've taken "write what you know" to include all one's life experiences - emotional, physical, human interactions, places visited/lived - and put that knowledge into one's writing. I may have to look up what a location looks like, but if it's a small rural town - hey, I know exactly what the people will be like.
     
  16. Orcalot
    Offline

    Orcalot Member

    Joined:
    Jun 5, 2011
    Messages:
    17
    Likes Received:
    2
    Location:
    Ireland
    I do agree with Cogito about writing what you know on an emotional level. But from my own experience of writing a novel, I would definitely agree with making it more a case of writing what you're passionate about. I'm about 20,000 words into my first novel. I'm enjoying it immensely, but I had no IDEA it would be this hard. I've been obsessed with killer whales since I was a kid, so they're a major part of the story. Now that I'm learning first hand what it's like to write a novel, I can't imagine ever doing this much work and sticking at it if I wasn't passionate about the story or the people in it. I've also had boring, crappy jobs in my life with bosses who were complete nightmares, and while I might not give a character that same job in my writing, I can certainly use the experience of working under those circumstances to shape a character and make dialogue and conflicts and things like that more realistic. So maybe instead of just "write what you know", write what you're passionate about and adapt what you know. ;)
     
  17. jazzabel
    Offline

    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2012
    Messages:
    4,273
    Likes Received:
    1,666
    That's very interesting shadowwalker. I lived in so many places, all over the world, and while I know many of them very well, now, trying to decide on a setting in my current novel, none of the places seem to fit. It is strange because it is a good mix of big cities, smaller towns and middle of nowhere, but the more i think about it, the less I feel like I know any of them.
    I am compelled to invent a place, either by setting it in the future or actually inventing it (like "St Mary Mead" in Miss Marple novels). I would base it on places that I know, but it would be a mix of things.
    It's all very strange because I never anticipated this difficulty at all.
     
  18. jazzabel
    Offline

    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2012
    Messages:
    4,273
    Likes Received:
    1,666
    @Cacian: that's very interesting, although it does explain some of your threads :D I like to talk too, but I talk what I know, otherwise, I am really quiet. Although, I too sometimes start writing, trying to figure out my attitude to something, but these are usually essays, not fiction.

    @spklvr: I come from a non-English speaking country and the reason I am reluctant to write about it is that I feel nobody in this world I live in now would give a damn. But it's got to do with an ugly war, and feeling of being quite frankly let down by the rest of the world, so I think it is a complicated issue for me. But yes, I too wish I could write about my home country but feel compelled to at least set the action in an English-speaking world. Which is ok, because it is what I know, but still... Decisions, decisions :D
    Lol, your characters don't have jobs?! Omg, i am obsessed with such details and for some reason, I actually can't write a story unless I figure out exactly how a character would pay his/her bills. I don't have to even mention the job, but I have to know what it is.

    @Oraclot: that's very well said, and congratulations on making it this far! I have a feeling it's always going to be hard writing an entire novel, but it is always worth the effort. What you said about being passionate enough about the story to be able to stick with it through thick and thin, I totally agree, it is one piece of advice I got from another writer that has helped me more than anything else. Best of luck and may you write an awesome killer-whale bestseller! :)
     
  19. ClusterChuck
    Offline

    ClusterChuck Senior Member

    Joined:
    Dec 25, 2011
    Messages:
    164
    Likes Received:
    6
    Location:
    Florida
    I like writing about what i wish to know.

    I start asking myself a question driving home like, 'I wonder if a human body in a casket cast from a space ship could crash land on some furtile ground and spring forth life there on some wet alien planet waiting for a bit of bacteria...'

    So i read up on the theories of meteors bringing life here and what elements compose a human body and then i experiment with a character that is willing to hold on to that coffin (and his hermetically seal corpse) for dear afterlife as he drift off into what might cause his divinity. Curiosity leads me to write what I wouldn't possible have found out if not for trying to telling an accurately level story.

    Though, as a security guard working a night patrol, I already have some ideas bouncing around specific to maglights and padlocks.
     
  20. Melzaar the Almighty
    Offline

    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 28, 2010
    Messages:
    1,792
    Likes Received:
    55
    Location:
    UK
    It took me a long time to write stories set in anything even approaching the "real world" because I was pretty scared of this concept :p At least in a fantasy land you can just go off emotions and logic in equal parts to make it all work. In the real world you have to know stuff about stuff... Although since I started writing out here I think I have got a lot better at writing because the constraints and need to find a way to describe boring stuff in an interesting way has made me focus more on the words I use rather than just throwing them at something magical and assuming I'm free to do what I like with it because I'm its inventor.

    Looking back on those fantasy stories I wrote, if they had parts with the real world overlapping some of those were the best parts as well :p
     
  21. miss sunhine
    Offline

    miss sunhine Member

    Joined:
    Jan 7, 2012
    Messages:
    82
    Likes Received:
    2
    Location:
    norwich, UK
    I've never really agreed with that saying, i like to learn new things, and would get bored just writing what i knew. What if you're a person that doesn't know very much?
    Stephen King didn't know what it was like to have mind powers when he wrote Carrie.
    But with something like that, who knows? So we have to take his word for it, that's were being insightful is handy to a writer. I think something that's common knowledge like falling in love, everyone does it, it's familar to everyone and everyone has their idea of how it should be. In that case if you didn't know you could make it unrealistic.

    But no i don't believe in writing what you know, i believe in writing what inspires you and for me doing the Research is half the fun!
    x
     
  22. Cacian
    Offline

    Cacian Banned

    Joined:
    Oct 25, 2011
    Messages:
    1,907
    Likes Received:
    5
    how do you mean by he did not know?
     
  23. My writer side
    Offline

    My writer side Member

    Joined:
    Jan 20, 2012
    Messages:
    22
    Likes Received:
    1
    Location:
    North Yorkshire, England
    I think it depends on what what kind of writer you want to be or are. Personally I hardly write anything but crazy out of this world fiction or more serious fiction with a hint of that same insanity in it. So when I write I never write about what I know. But thats just me, everyone is different.
     
  24. TDFuhringer
    Offline

    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2012
    Messages:
    589
    Likes Received:
    262
    Location:
    Somewhere South of Midnight
    In the story, Carrie is Psychokinetic. Stephen King (oviously) is not. He had to imagine what it would be like to have Psychokinetic abilites.
     
  25. digitig
    Offline

    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2010
    Messages:
    2,502
    Likes Received:
    79
    Location:
    Orpington, Bromley, United Kingdom, United Kingdom
    What do you think the advice means? Do you think Terry Pratchett knows what it is like to live on a flat world supported by four elephants riding on the back of a giant turtle? Of course not, but he clearly knows a lot about political machinations, and they happen there as well as here. Do you think Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) knew what it was like to live as a 12th century monk? Of course not, but she knew a lot about human nature, and that was (presumably) the same then as now. That's what "write what you know" means: write about emotions, situations and so on that you know, even if the context of those emotions, situations and so on is radically different.
     

Share This Page