Do You Really Have to Write What You Know?

One of the first things an amateur writer hears is the age-old adage, “Write what you know.” It’s a simple statement, suggested plainly, as if we have to take it at face value, but it’s an assertion that goes far beyond what we first take it to mean.

For me, I took it to mean, “write about your life,” which, in some fashion, suggests fictionalizing non-fiction. I’m not opposed to this idea, but if you’d lived my life, you’d probably realize what a terrible book it would make.

Then, of course, there’s the idea of occupations. If you’re a middle-aged butcher, you should write about a middle-aged butcher. But there again is the veiled suggestion to personalize the fiction in a way that might be a little too close for comfort.

I’ve heard several different takes on this idea, and the one that sticks with me the most is, “Write what you WANT to know.” The idea here is that you can write about an airline pilot without ever having been one. And, realistically, if you’re writing any sort of expansive fiction, you’re going to have to do that at some point. Our world is a world of characters, all ages, shapes and sizes. They all co-exist and swim into each other’s lives at varying levels of proximity.

Our world is also a world of influence. Each character plays on the other, pushing or pulling, hugging or hitting. How the interaction occurs is not so important as the fact that there IS interaction.

We have met a variety of people. A writer who is in the habit of art will take these characters to heart. They will know, in a ten minute period, who these people are. They will know what makes them tick, what drives them. And while they may not figure out every secret each person holds, they will know at least, perhaps, what KINDS of secrets. And, if they truly can’t deduce that, they will be able to make up something unique.

The writer who includes these characters in their fiction will enjoy the process of discovery, of finding out more about the characters as they develop. They will take what they’ve observed, what they’ve fictionalized to fill in the blanks, and roll it together into a thick dough, and watch the bread rise as the story bakes.

I say all this to offer a different way to view the adage, and it comes on the heels of an earlier post on the language of fiction, of the inclusion of imagery in fiction. When it comes to locations you’ve not experienced, jobs you’ve not had, etc., take the time to figure out what they’re truly like. Do some research. Book a flight. Make a phone call. Surf the web. Do whatever you need to do to write about that subject knowledgably. A good example of this is my father, who wrote a book called A Ship Possessed about a World War II submarine that surfaces fifty years late in the wrong ocean. My father never served in the military, but he did take a tour of a similar submarine. He took good notes. He researched online, in the library, and wherever else he could. At one point, he received a call from a WWII vet who asked him which ship he’d served on. Did he write what he knew? In this case, he knew what he wrote.

But here is the heart of what I want to say—the thing I’ve been beating around the bush to get to (if you’ll pardon my cliché). Regardless of what we’re writing about—Westerns or Sci-fis, literary or commercial, romance or tragedy, high-concept thrillers or experimental fiction—it all comes back to one thing: the human condition. There are only a few great themes in life: birth, death, love, and loss to name a few. In some way, each of us has experienced these. We’ve loved. We’ve hated. We’ve sought revenge. We’ve sought peace. We’ve felt guilt and remorse. We’ve felt joy and elation. These are the things we know, regardless of the setting or plot. This is what we know. And this is what we should write.

4 Comments on Do You Really Have to Write What You Know?

  1. “We have met a variety of people. A writer who is in the habit of art will take these characters to heart. They will know, in a ten minute period, who these people are.”

    You took the words right out of my mouth Mr Gansky. Now let me have them back! 😉

    “Did he write what he knew? In this case, he knew what he wrote. ”

    Very true.

    Amazing post.

  2. dianesherlock | August 2, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Reply

    Yep, so true, write what you know is more about emotions, values, and viewpoint coupled with thorough research. Well done, Mr. Gansky.

  3. Your dad taught me this….”if you really want to learn to write…write something you know nothing about. It’ll teach you research, you’re not as attached so you can be a little more objective, and you’ll stretch to meet the mark.” My good friend Aaron…said, “What do you wanna write about Cindy?”

  4. Donna Mullin | August 2, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Reply

    I had a professor who said, in effect, that fiction is as close to pure truth as any writing can get. Everything is created by the writer; there is no interpretation of facts or other people’s recollections. As the creation of a sole creator is is truth; “he knew what he wrote.” You’re dead-on here.

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