Tips for Writers: Write What You Know?

Magic_Book_by_iLeeh95

A successful writer friend once went tiradical on me when I mentioned the literary admonition, “Write what you know.”

“I hate that!” she shouted.

“Why?”

“It restricts you! What if you want to write about something you’ve never experienced?”

Interestingly, that very week I’d invented a two-storey tall talking bird named Aviar for my fantasy novel The Wishing Map. I confess, I have never personally known any two-storey tall talking birds. But I did know my father-in-law, an irascibly lovable, salt-of-the-earth Arkansan. And he was the model for Aviar. When my wife read the passage, she said, “Oh, yeah, that’s Dad.”

What my normally insightful writer friend seemed to have missed was this: “Write what you know” doesn’t mean “restrict yourself to direct experience.” It means: write the underlying truths you’ve observed about people, their quirks, motives, fears, hopes. You can invent the window dressing (giant talking bird, Viking warrior, alien overlord), but base what shows through that window on your personal experiences. This includes milieu: Have you ever felt awkward at a social event? Use that to describe your beggar hero’s feelings in the court of Kublai Khan.

And don’t forget nuances: Purely invented characters are never as nuanced and quirky as real people—so steal and adapt! Use real people as sources for your characters’ vocabularies and syntax, habits and mannerisms.

Also, even when you base your major characters upon people you know (a good thing), inject a little of yourself into them. It will make them real. Because you are the realest person you know. And your personal investment in your characters (yes, even the evil ones) is what breathes life into them.

An acting teacher named Richard Boleslavsky once had a terrified actress come to him for help. She’d been cast in the role of a cold-blooded murderer, and felt there was no way she could bring the character to life. So Boleslavsky asked her if she’d ever been kept awake on a sweltering summer night by blood-hunting mosquitoes.

“Oh, yes!” she replied.

“Good. And what did you do about it?”

She went on to describe how she’d cold-bloodedly plotted each mosquito’s demise. And then it clicked.

Her performance in the play, Boleslavsky reports, was chillingly perfect.

So write what your mind knows. And what your heart knows.

And invent the rest.

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
This entry was posted in Books, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

51 Responses to Tips for Writers: Write What You Know?

  1. chocotales says:

    This is a great post. The first time I heard this advice and really listened to it, my writing changed. Everything kind of fell into place from there.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great advice! Follow your heart!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. revruss1220 says:

    I love this! I have pondered taking a crack at fiction writing in the past but didn’t feel I was “creative enough” to do it. This advice gives me permission to shove that excuse aside and do some exploring. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. liamjcrosswritingandediting says:

    What an awesome post and a great spin on the old piece of writing advice. I much prefer your take on it. I’m also a huge believer of writing your life into your fictional works, and in this post, you hit that nail on the head. I love the last three sentences, those are truly beautiful. Thanks for sharing this.

    Best wishes,
    Liam Cross

    Owner of Liam J Cross Writing & Editing

    Liked by 1 person

  5. joyroses13 says:

    Wonderful advice. So true!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mitch
    Great advice. Writing or doing anything artistic is much harder
    than a more traditional pursuit.
    And you are correct on adding nuances or background information to expand
    your characters.
    Brad
    Brad James

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is wonderful advice Mitch — thanks so much for sharing it!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post. I feel I do this at times but this made me want to be more conscious about it. Thank you for this ! 👌

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I confess to not stopping in to your blog anywhere near as much as I would like, however,I am very glad that I did today. I often try to help young writers and when the kids haven’t real-life experience,it’s difficult for them to truly evoke the thoughts or feelings of their characters. This gives me many ideas as to how to have them see more of their experiences as basis for their writings.
    To be honest, I am sure that it will help me in mine.
    (I am trying to read a book by an acquaintance, but the man has no idea how women think. It was published by a big-name house and is part of a series. Go figure,)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for this post, I confess that I really didn’t understand the admonition “Write what you know”, until I read this article, you explained everything in such a clear and crisp manner that i was instantly able to absorb it.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. “Write what you know.” I know all about hobbits, elves, dragons, spaceships, four headed multi-dimensional pool playing creatures, so I’ll just write about those. Just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean their not real.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. alexankarr1 says:

    ‘tiradical’, ha! Neologism props!

    Good advice, too. Some writers seem eager to box themselves in with rules, when even the (very few) writing rules that actually make any sense, are only intended to make writing easier.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. M.B. Henry says:

    Excellent post! I do base a lot of my characters off of people I know. Either people I’ve met directly, or people I feel I’ve come to know by reading their memoirs and connecting with them through words they’ve left behind. Thanks for sharing these thoughts

    Liked by 1 person

  14. frenchc1955 says:

    Mitch, thank you for an excellent and insightful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. frenchc1955 says:

    Reblogged this on charles french words reading and writing and commented:
    This is a wonderful post on writing by Mitch Teemley!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Excellent advice, and you explained the concept of writing what you know far better than I ever could. There’s a little bit of me in every character I write. I just hope my readers can’t figure out which parts those are. 😉 And I really hope the people I know don’t recognize themselves in my characters. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  17. ellie894 says:

    So true and you said it so well. Thanks 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Jennie says:

    Well said, Mitch. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. jenanita01 says:

    Reblogged this on anita dawes and jaye marie and commented:
    Cunningly simple, yet perfect advice!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. RGS says:

    This is so helpful. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. brunniegetchell says:

    Thank You for this advice. I plan to keep this blog post as a reference.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. terihagh says:

    As a writer, I’m inspired.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Excellent advice and explanation, Mitch! I’ll bet your students loved your classes!!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Ann Coleman says:

    This is wonderful advice for all writers. When I first started writing fiction, I was stymied because I truly believed that I could only write about things that I knew very well, and then of course I was worried that I would get it exactly right. (Plus, I was in my early 20’s, so I didn’t know all that much, period!)
    It wasn’t until years later that I realized that I could “write what I know” without sticking to the things that I actually knew…that it was okay to weave in inventions and “what if’s into the story as well… and “what I knew” really just meant my own perspective on the world. It was enlightening, to say the least.
    I hope lots of writers read this post and take it to heart!

    Liked by 1 person

  25. “So write what your mind knows. And what your heart knows. And invent the rest.”

    I love this! I don’t write fiction, but I could relate with what you said about the importance of tapping into the underlying truths we’ve observed when we write. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  26. This was so interesting . Thanks for such great advice .

    Liked by 1 person

  27. sjaryett says:

    I like that. Thank you for posting such a great advice.

    Like

  28. Pingback: Tips for Writers: Subconscious Mannerisms | Mitch Teemley

  29. Pingback: Tips for Writers: Write What You Know? – Jill Brock

  30. ” “Write what you know” doesn’t mean “restrict yourself to direct experience.” It means: write the underlying truths you’ve observed about people, their quirks, motives, fears, hopes.”

    I love that. I will have to remember this in the future when I get stuck in my writing. I write poetry, but the same would still apply. 🙂 So insightful.

    Liked by 1 person

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