Friday, March 21, 2014

Write What You Know

I’ve always hated this advice. I remember the scene(s) in Gossip Girl where Dan Humphrey is all sad because he’s told to stop writing the same stories over and over again. Why is he sad? Because that’s all he knows! *whines*

Holy cow do I want to scream at Dan. Even more, I want to scream at the professional author who tells him to live more so he’ll have more stories to tell.

Guys, fiction is fiction. If you ONLY wrote about things you’ve personally done, well it wouldn’t be fiction anymore. You’d be putting fake names on a memoir. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. If you want to write about things you’ve done—do it! What’s wrong is when we sit here and think that’s the ONLY thing we can write. 
I’m a big fan of stepping out my box and telling others to do the same.
A part of me wants to shout out “Screw the ‘Write What You Know’ Rule!” But the truth is, there is some merit to it. You just have to look at it right.

So here’s my take on it.

If you look at this writing “rule” in a big picture way, you’ll get all kinds of messed up and turn into Dan Humphry #2 (don’t become Dan Humphrey #2). Where Write What You Know comes in, is the details.

Now I’m not part goblin, I don’t live in a futuristic society and I’ve never been lost in underground tunnels. But I wrote a book about those things. Clearly, I didn’t write only things I’ve experienced. But I can still use things I do know to make my writing more realistic, more relatable and make it jump off the page.

When I was in Middle School I went caving while at summer camp (I’m actually itching to go again sometime soon). It was fantastic! I saw firsthand what it was like to explore the underground (even if I was being led by a professional caver who knew the caves inside and out). I remember what it was like to have to wait a full 5 minutes for your eyes to adjust. I remember the sounds of the echoing, the water dripping from the high ceiling to who knows where. I remember the bats hanging on the walls.
I used all those experiences in my writing.

Did I need them to write what I did? No. But did they make those underground scenes better? YES!

Joan D. Vinge

This is something you can use in your writing every single day. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. Remember a time that you did something similar to your character and use it.  It can be as simple at staring at a scratch on the kitchen counter while your parents argued, or the feeling you got when you first met your best friend. Settings, feelings—details. The little things. Those are the things that make every scene jump off the page. Use things you’ve seen, you’ve felt, you’ve wanted or hated, smelled, touched. You don’t have to have been where your character is going, but you probably have some way to bring your own experiences into the writing.

Want some homework? Think of one scene you’ve written. Got it? Now think of one aspect you’ve experienced yourself within that scene. It can be a feeling, setting, even just one object you remember well. Use the things you remember seeing and feeling and add it to your scene.
Did it make it better? Does your scene feel more real? I’d be surprised if it didn’t (but you can tell me either way)


  1. Nice, nice post...and especially great advice on looking at a scene and finding that connection. I like it! Thanks!

  2. Great post! I love what you said about using real experiences to make sci-fi/fantasy more real. One of the great things about being a writer is that you have a good excuse for doing things like your cave experience!