Laws of Nature / Man vs Nature / writing

How To Write What You Know

During my promo for my latest prehistoric fiction, Laws of Nature. one of my wonderful hosts posted this article  I wrote about one of those truisms in writing that every writer-in-training learns from day one. In case you missed it, here’s a revisit:

***

Mark Twain started it when he said, “Write what you know.” From then on, writers take that as gospel. Dig deep. Scratch out what you feel/think/are passionate about and bleed it onto the page.  As new writers it’s one of three truths pounded into us–Show don’t tell, Murder your babies, and Write what you know.

No one ponders the truth that fiction writers make stuff up. Most authors haven’t seen London blow up though thriller writers postulate it all the time. How about a massive gorilla atop the Empire State Building? Fantasy writers make up whole worlds and species as do SciFi aficionados. Did they not get the memo? What about Hannibal Lector, cutting people’s heads open to eat their living brain? Or Criminal Minds‘ psycho killers? I’d rather drink Drano than think they’re real.

In a rational literary world, making stuff up makes sense. It’s called ‘fiction’, which Webster defines as ‘not real’ (I’ve abbreviated, but you get the idea). How does that jive with ‘Write what you know’? What Mark Twain should have said–maybe meant to say–was ‘Lie creatively. Do your research, weave with zest, be believable, and write’. But that’s got all the literary charisma of a dirty needle.

Maybe he meant it as a suggestion, Write what you know. Or not. Your choice.

I confess, I tried to ‘write what I know’. Then I fell in love with prehistoric fiction which is impossible to know. I researched the world long before records were kept and wrote that story, making sure to only write what I knew to be true. It was boring. No one cared because it had no power, passion, or pull.

That’s when the truth hit me: Great authors don’t write what they know. They convince readers to ‘willingly suspend their disbelief’ and not care if it’s not true.

Today, thirty years and counting into my writing journey, I understand: The connotative definition of ‘write what you know’ is completely different from the denotative one, and that’s good. Since realizing that, I’ve written almost a million words that have no basis in my life, history, or reality.

How about you?

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https://forms.aweber.com/form/87/838503387.htm.




Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular prehistoric fiction saga, Man vs. Nature which explores seminal events in man’s evolution one trilogy at a time. She is also the author of the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers and Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. Her non-fiction includes over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, reviews as an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Natural Selection, Spring 2022.

94 thoughts on “How To Write What You Know

  1. I remember the “write what you know” from reading Anne of Green Gables as a girl where that’s the disheartening advice she received. I like the way you breathe new life to the advice! Perhaps what the original advice meant was that the novice author would do well to focus on writing what they know, and the unsaid portion was once they “graduate” they are ready to give the reader new realms, new revelations?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an inspiring article, Jacqui – it makes me think about that concept in a whole new way. My trouble is that I started writing about things I knew nothing about, and slowly coming back to more familiar subjects. Toni x

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a great topic, Jacqui. I have to agree about writing what you know – or not. After all, there’s so many things we haven’t dreamt up yet, something we haven’t heard of much so why not put that down into words. It can certainly apply to both fiction and non-fiction. As a non-fiction writer, I’m not afraid to let my mind wander and come up with endless possibilities.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great post, Jacqui, and great comment thread! ‘Making it up’ is the whole joy of writing for me. But how many rabbit holes have I dived down in order to get it right when it comes to ‘what other people will probably know’. For example, I know an awful lot more about watercraft after writing my last 2 novels!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blogger Weekly – 13th February 2022 – #Reviews D. Wallace Peach, #Writing Jacqui Murray, #Valentines Carol Taylor, #SouthAfrica Rebecca Budd and Robbie Cheadle, #Ireland Rowena Newton | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  6. Excellent blog post, Jacqui. I have to admit, when I heard the phrase ‘write what you know’, it did stop me from writing especially ancient history era. Then I decided I am going to do it anyway. You are so right. Fiction is creating worlds and ‘suspending belief’.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been lucky enough to visit a number of the locations in my ancient historical stories. The research does make a difference in providing enough detail and information to feel as if you’ve been there.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I think “write what you know” means you add realism to your characters. You’ve been sad, angry, happy – so you can give real emotion to your character. If you were to write a main character who is a [insert profession here] it would help if you were familiar to the profession, so to a reader it seems genuine, but google is very helpful!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Perhaps Twain should have said, “Write what you’re interested in.” Let’s face it, if you’re not interested in airplanes, you’re not going to give one a big part in your story. Or are there writers who do exactly that?

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’ve never been sure what to make of that advice, either, Jacqui. I tend to like to write what’s preoccupying me. That goes for both my fiction and my blogging. If a subject won’t loosen its hold on my imagination, I write about it, and in writing about it, I learn more about it. I live by this quote from E.M. Forster: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Writing what you know is a sound philosophy, but how does this let us explore things we may not know about. That’s where research comes in handy. If I’m going to include something from the 18th century, I’m going to research it to make sure it’s historically accurate. I know you feel the same.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Hi Jacqui – I don’t think you can always write what you know when it comes to plot and setting, but I think the “knowing” part is understanding how characters interact. This comment is coming from a novice writer, though (me!). As a reader, I really appreciate authors with great imaginations!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I write fantasy ormade up stuff a lot so that part is made up but how the characters react or little things within are things I know. I think it makes things believable within a story. Good post and thoughts, Jacqui 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Hi Jacqui, I write what I know form the perspective that my characters are often people with backgrounds in finance or accounting and they often work in corporates. Sometimes they are writers. That is about as far as my reality goes in my works. I’ve not been drowned, beaten to death, shot at, or burned. I’ve not been to hell, or fought in a war. I have visited the UK and many parts of SA so the settings for my stories are easier. I haven’t been to New Jersey though. Hmmm, interesting post and I think research is key.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Certainly, if you are writing fiction, you get to make things up. But you have to know how to have your reader suspend belief or convince them it’s possible. For non-fiction, you better know what you write. I often check the sources one uses before reading the book!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well I can say from experience it sure works.

      Request: I’m featuring two of Linda Broday’s books on my Friday Valentine Romance post. I think I remember right–she’s your sil? Would you mind mentioning it so she could drop in and say hi? You know I get lots of comments and we writers always love hearing from authors themselves! It would be much appreciated.

      Like

  15. I love your edit of Twain’s famous line: “What Mark Twain should have said–maybe meant to say–was ‘Lie creatively. Do your research, weave with zest, be believable, and write’.” If I wrote strictly along the lines of what I know, my books would be pretty boring!

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I recently had to do a promotional video for an author event, and one of the things I was asked to address in the vid was advice for new writers. I brought up the “write what you know” line, but my advice to them was and is “write what you’re passionate about.” That passion shines through in what we write to create an engrossing story. I would say writing what you’re passionate about rings true for you with prehistoric fiction, Jacqui! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Maybe Mr. Twain was helping new writers to find a way to start to write when he said write what you know. My writing other than business marketing began as a memoir. I have written three non-fiction self help books. Just writing what I knew in the first person gave me a start. Leaping to fiction I had to learn different skills. If I had tried to write fiction all at once I think I would have given up. Twain was a newspaper reporter so he knew how to write facts. Then he took off to write stories we are still reading with awe. When someone asks me how to get started writing I tell them to write a short story of an experience they had that was memorable. If you can do that then maybe you can write with more imagination and turn it into a book people will read in awe.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I agree. I think he meant if you don´t know where to start, then write what you know. It´s always a good place to start. I started writing about a trip I took to the middle east, but it was boring and didn´t reflect the excitement I felt when I was there. So I told it from the point of view of a twelve-year-old and threw in an adventure. But I started with something I knew.

      Liked by 2 people

  18. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d bet that the “write what you know” quote was taken out of context. It would be interesting to find the original source. I’ve always thought in terms of “write what you know how to write about.”

    Liked by 3 people

  19. Pingback: How To Write What You Know — – uwerolandgross

    • I suspect that goes under Mae’s expanded explanation that ‘what you know’ is as much about passion. Your stories all have happy endings–a nod to your true passion of bringing joy to readers.

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