Tips for Writers: Write What You Know?


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

“I hate that!” she shouted.


“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 tells us, was chillingly perfect.

So write what your mind knows and your heart knows…

And invent the rest.

About mitchteemley

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

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

  1. byngnigel says:

    really great advice. I think of myself as the mannequin in my stories, and I dress my characters up accordingly. Especially if I am inventing them from scratch. Words of wisdom, Mitch. Great stuff.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I agree with this piece of advice. At 72 years old, I can in all honesty say I’ve experienced a lot. Writing shouldn’t be a problem for me; however, I’m experiencing a block now. I sit at my desk, and I think of topics to write about without problem, but collecting ideas for transfer to the computer screen seems an insurmountable task. I tell myself I’ve been here before. This is temporary. Any suggestions?

    Liked by 3 people

    • mitchteemley says:

      I collect ideas on scraps of paper, and use those as starting points when I’m writing a blog post. When I’m writing something longer, I brainstorm “what-ifs” on a notepad, and then apply those to one of two outline forms (one for fiction and the other for non-fiction). You probably already know this, but the #1 rule of brainstorming is “Don’t edit!” Write down anything that pops into your head, no matter how crazy, and then follow that lead and see where it takes you; you may end up doing a complete 180 at some point, but at least you’ll have gotten moving! (P.S. I’m afraid I don’t know your name, my friend.)

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Discover and Explore says:

    Another practical and insightful piece of writing. Very helpful. Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Shilpa Gupte says:

    Thank you so much, Mitch! These are great writing tips.
    I am participating in the A to Z Blogging Challenge this month, and it is the first time that I have written 26 flash fiction pieces. Most of the characters I wrote about are people I know and myself. I am sure every piece needs a lot of editing, but I managed to write the story and felt good about it, too.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Even people like me who know so little can write. Great points you make.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Vera Day says:

    Write what you know about the underlying truths… I like that, Mitch!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Great advice, Mitch. Thanks!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. anitashope says:

    I fully agree. I recently wrote a book about dogs in Heaven. The story is fictional but hopeful and the characters are real dogs. Its was a fun write.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Paula Light says:

    Great advice, Mitch! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Good advice, Mitch. I’m going to bookmark this for a future review.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Oh, how I loved reading this. I believe sometimes we take advice from gurus or from experts at face value and that is wrong. Specially if we’re creative persons. There are soooo many ways to heed advice and this is a perfect one. Thanks. This was a gem.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. mitchteemley says:

    I’m delighted to hear this connected some dots for you, Flor.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Excellent writing advice! I’m an old hand at stealing other people’s speech patterns, appearance, and mannerisms. If they tell me their life story, I’ll steal pieces of that, too. :O

    Liked by 4 people

  14. jilldennison says:

    I never thought about it before, but it makes perfect sense!

    Liked by 3 people

  15. I don’t edit when I brainstorm because I can’t read my writing. Great advice, Mitch.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Jon says:

    This caught my attention and made me read is twice ’cause it was read-it-twice good.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. This is brilliant. How’d you get so smart? 😀

    Liked by 3 people

  18. successbmine says:

    Great advice. I think it would be hard not to put myself into my characters because I do write from what I believe and who I am. It has to show up somewhere, and I find it in my characters in different forms. Sometimes they like to do what I like to do. Sometimes they react to certain things the way I would react. Sometimes they travel to places I have been and I can use my personal experience to describe those places. But there are also many things in their characters and actions that are not to be found in my life, and that makes it more interesting, and, as you said, more real.

    Liked by 3 people

  19. Great post, Mitch! Yes, the saying doesn’t mean write ONLY what you know, but it’s a place to start. Heck, my dreams don’t stick with what I know, they come up with all kinds of weird stuff – I guess various things I know, combined in ways my waking mind would never imagine. I love the mosquito example. Yes, someone who sees people on the same level as mosquitoes would be a blood-chilling character!

    Liked by 3 people

  20. Thotaramani says:

    It’s always interesting to share with others what we know about Mitch Acquiring knowledge is limitless..

    Liked by 3 people

  21. Hi. Real good article. We are who and what we are. So, unless we’re forcing things, our basic nature and inclinations are reflected in our writings.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Lisa Bernard says:

    Something about writing what we’re learning and exploring … has that special energy of discovery.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Stacey says:

    I appreciate your insights so much. Thank you for being a blogger with such a generous heart, Mitch!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Ann Coleman says:

    That is so true! I know it’s popular right now to “stay in your lane” which seems to mean only writing from your own, unique perspective. And I don’t buy that for a second. If we write according to what we understand of the world, we’ll be just fine. Which is why men can write about a woman’s point of view, a childless person can write from a parent’s point of view, etc. The key is to be true to your own, unique self. And from then on, the sky is the limit!

    Liked by 1 person

  25. . says:

    I’ve always taken “wite what you know” as a road map and a challenge to learn and expand

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s