Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Write What You Know

by Deborah Nielsen












If you take this advice literally, fiction would be a non-starter. How do you write about new worlds filled with things and beings never seen or heard about before? What happens to sinister cars or evil houses that want to kill their occupants, or dragons and vampires and girls falling rabbit holes?

And writing nonfiction would be limited as well. If you don’t know about something, how do you write about it?


Trust Calvin and Hobbes to Nail It.







Whose bright idea was this? No one seems to know how this bit of writing advice came to be. It sure has caused a lot of angst. I've read countless articles on what it means and how to deal with it. I’ve heard it over and over at writers’ conferences and in classrooms. To me, it sounds limiting. But then I started to think about it and took some of those articles seriously.

I had never thought about emotions before I read about how we know them. We know what fear is and the types of things that cause fear in each of us. We know what love is and how that makes us feel about another person. We understand our anger and why we get mad.

"Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak. Be willing to be split open. " -Natalie Goldberg


As long as we make our characters believable, meaning they get scared, fall in love, get mad, or jealous, or sad, or filled with happiness, then we know how they might react even if they’re in a world that’s only real in our imagination.
Holli True Said It Best

If you’re writing a historical romance, you have to know about the period in history your story where in time as well as in which country your characters live.



  • How much do you know about the time? 
  • What was the country like? 
  • How did people dress? 
  • How did they live? 
  • What did they eat and how did they prepare their food? 


You Just Dated Yourself. Don't Worry, No One Noticed.



To make your story believable, you’ll need to do some research to answer those questions. The more you learn, the more you know. The more you know, the more believable your story is. You don’t have to get bogged down in details.

Just because you’ve delved into 17th-century feasts doesn’t mean you have to throw all the particulars of the foods and how to prepare them for the story. Unless those details matter. If your reader can’t believe in the story, they’ll quit reading.

I write mainly non-fiction but sometimes I don’t know everything I need to about the subject. Should that stop me? No. That means I need to learn more about it. I’ll do some research, or find out how to do or make what I’m writing about, or talk to experts or to the people involved.

The more I learn, the more I know and the better I can craft my article.


  • What’s my angle or focus? 
  • How does my knowledge support what I'm writing? 
  • Am I able to be objective? Do I need to be? 
  • Does what I’ve learned and understood help me empathize about whomever I’m writing? 
  • Does my knowledge of the subject overwhelm the reader with too many facts? 


Just because I know the subject intimately doesn’t mean I need to use all the knowledge I have. That can overwhelm or bore my reader, and they leave to read something else. If that happens, I’ve failed. Nonfiction also needs to be interesting and believable to hold a reader’s attention.

Check out The Write Life for some techniques on writing interesting non-fiction.

Writer's Digest offers tips on becoming a better non-fiction writer. 

5 comments:

Patricia Stoltey said...

Excellent post, Deborah. I've always thought that was the strangest advice to give a writer. If you have to write what you know, what good is imagination?

Deborah Nielsen said...

So true, Pat. Half the books I read and enjoy are figments of the author's imagination. If the characters are believable, I'll buy into it no matter where they are in time or space. If we write only what we know, we wouldn't write much. And I wouldn't care what happened to Louis L'Amour's Sacketts. I really miss them. And they're just imaginary.

David Sharp said...

Great post, Deborah! And I love this topic. If we're familiar with those universal human experiences, we can write about them in any setting, however impossible it might be.

Maybe it's imagination that helps us to know what we otherwise couldn't know. Or maybe imagination is the dream element we weave into our knowledge base to give it meaning. Either way, it's pretty cool.

shenke said...

I have this T-shirt and it says "Imagination is greater than knowledge." - Albert Einstein.

I wear it proudly and this piece expresses that quote so well. I love the bit about the importance of research and how we can live in realms beyond our own personal experience knowing we have ties to universal emotional landscapes in the real world. Great piece!

Laura Mahal said...

"Be willing to split open." That is incredibly powerful.

For months, I've been working on a novel about a subject with which I am less than intimately familiar. But the main character has been knocking me upside the head for more than a year, telling me to write her story.

In November, a very comparable real-world situation arose in my life. Thanks to the fictional world I've been inhabiting, I was more than ready to cope. It was as if, deep in my subconscious, my writing was preparing me. For that, I am most grateful!

Excellent post, Deborah.

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