Write What You Know — Seriously?

Howdy Folks,

How many times has some pundit told you to “write what you know”?

Uh, no. That is bad advice. Maybe the baddest advice ever, and I mean that in the old sense of “baddest,” before we started dumbing down the language. I mean “worst.”

It’s bad advice because the connotation is that you should write ONLY what you know.

So what? You’re supposed to write what you DON’T know?

Yes. Of course. You should also write what you know, but not ONLY what you know.

If everyone wrote only what they know, there would be very little science fiction, zero science fantasy (or other fantasy, for that matter), very little mystery, very little suspense, and so on. You can only “know” what actually exists and what you’ve actually experienced.

But think about it. Can you write a police procedural if you’ve never been a cop? Of course. Can you write a spy/thriller if you’ve never worked for the CIA? Yep. Can you write a romance novel if you’ve never been involved with a “shuddering, heaving breast” or a guy with flowing hair, broad shoulders, a thick chest with just the right amount of hair on it and trim, athletic hips? Yep.

If you couldn’t, novels wouldn’t exist.

All you need is Interest. If you’re Interested in writing Science Fiction, create a character, give him a problem, and drop him into a setting. Okay, then what happens first? Shrug. I don’t know. He’s your character. All I know is he has to solve the problem. (This might not be “the” problem of the story. Just a problem to get the character/situation started.)

If you’re interested in writing Mystery, create a character, give him a problem, and drop him into a setting. In this case, it’s a good idea if the problem is that the character just stumbled across a body. (grin)

If you’re interested in writing Romance, create a character (or two), give him a problem, and drop him into a setting.

Beginning to notice a trend here?

All you need to begin a story (of any length) is a character with a problem in a setting. That’s it. By and large, the setting determines the genre. Most characters and most problems can be cherry picked from one setting and dropped into another. And you’ll write an entirely different story in an entirely different genre.

If you don’t believe me, try it.

And what do I mean by “setting”? For purposes of this topic, the setting is where the character suddenly realizes he has a problem, and where he works through the problem. The smaller and more focused the setting, the better. (More on that next time.)

For now, create a character, give him a problem, and drop him into a setting. Then write an opening.

The opening will be around 300 to 500 words, probably. Be sure to include the character’s sense of the setting (sight, smell, taste, feel, sound) and have him either solve the problem or get well underway in solving it.

If the opening takes off (most of the time it will take off), just write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence until the character leads you to the end of your new short story, novella, or novel.

If the opening sags out and dies, so what? Toss it. Then if you like the idea, write it again from scratch. And if you don’t like the idea, create a character, give him a problem, drop him into a setting and write another opening. (grin)

Seriously. Character + problem + setting = story opening. Try it. You won’t be disappointed. Add resolution and stir well. Bake for one hour per thousand words, spell check it, slap a cover on it and publish it.

‘Til next time, happy writing.


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3 thoughts on “Write What You Know — Seriously?”

  1. Always found “write what you know” the most uninspiring piece of advice. What fun is that? I want to go where I’ve never been and learn things I don’t know. Be somebody evil, unlikeable, fabulous, murderous. Someone really, really rich. Wow. Sleeping on the street? Instructive. Be a spy! Be a prostitute! Be, for god’s sake, a famous writer.

  2. Yes. I’ve heard that same tired advice from many speakers. I never tell anyone what to write. I tell writers what to read. If you want to write poetry, read lots of poetry books. That’s why I never read fantasy. I don’t want to write fantasy. And, I’ve not yet gotten there, but I read lots of mystery books. Two of my favorite authors of mystery: Robert B. Parker, and Dick Francis. Of course, Harvey Stanbrough is my favorite teacher, one who has “ironed out” some of that bad advice blowing around.

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