Know What You Write

By Nicole Disney

Write what you know. It’s the one rule everyone knows, writer or not. It’s the only piece of advice your mother could give you when you came to her with the masochistic plan to be an author. It’s an automatic answer to the blank page problem. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.

Following the release of my debut novel, I quickly discovered how literally this lesson is sometimes being interpreted. I was shocked at the number of times I told someone my story is about a homeless musician who falls in love with a meth addict, only to receive a couple of flustered blinks and the question, “You were a meth addict?”. This was no misunderstanding of the difference between fiction and non fiction, but rather, a complete inability to understand how or why I would write about such a topic if I hadn’t experienced it. One day, someone finally leaned in and said, “Well, writers write what they know”, with a wink that was supposed to imply she knew I was lying about the events in my story being fiction.

So why is it that this adage we writers hold so dear has been drained of its wisdom to a simplicity that discourages creativity and adventure? Literature would be dull and lifeless if the limited scope of what we do in our daily lives defined our appropriate platform for storytelling. What a world of cashiers and dog walking and bill paying books would become.

Lucky for us, write what you know doesn’t mean you have to be your main character before you’re allowed to write the story. Fantasy writers aren’t vampires, mystery writers don’t have to be detectives, and historical fiction writers don’t have to have an abnormal lifespan. You don’t have to write what you know, you just have to know what you write. Research never hurt an avid reader and the most important thing you’ll ever know about your story is who the characters are in their darkest moments.

If you know the pain of loneliness, you are qualified to write about someone trapped on an island. If you know the adrenaline of panic, you are qualified to write about a clerk in a gas station robbery. If you know the shame of guilt, you are qualified to write about a construction worker who caused his co-worker’s accidental death. It is the theme a writer must know inside and out. It is the theme that makes stories so different from our normal lives familiar and recognizable. If the characters feel real, the story feels real, no matter how outrageous the plot may be.

As for the more practical details, write what you wish you knew. Find that mysterious world that calls to you and learn about it. The knowledge doesn’t have to be preexisting. It can be acquired. Don’t let boundaries of inexperience restrict what you imagine. You don’t have to write what you know, you just have to know what you write. If storytelling isn’t a trip into the strange and new, it’s just a replica of the tedium we are trying to escape when we pick up a book.

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Nicole Disney is the debut author of contemporary lesbian fiction novel, Dissonance in A Minor. She lives in Denver, Colorado where she continues to write dark, edgy novels. She is also a martial arts instructor and teaches Krav Maga, Muay Thai, and Karate. For more about Nicole, please visit her website.

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About Patricia Stoltey

Patricia grew up on a farm in central Illinois so naturally had to use the old farm in her first mystery. The second Sylvia and Willie tale takes place near and in the little touristy gold mining town of Oatman, Arizona. Patricia's third novel, a standalone suspense called Dead Wrong, is scheduled for release November 2014. Visit her blog at http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com.

3 thoughts on “Know What You Write

  1. Julie Luek

    I just wrote a blog post about this site: http://www.wofford.edu/sharedworlds/handinhand.aspx– A collection of authors with advice written on their hands. One of my favorites is this by Joe Haldeman: Don’t “write what you know”. Make up something new.

    Of course we dig into our lives and experiences in our writing, but sticking to “only what we know” doesn’t always make for very good stories.

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  2. Patricia Stoltey

    Hi Nicole, and welcome to the RMFW Blogging team.

    I prefer the “write what you wish you knew” because it gives me an excuse to read and research stuff I don’t know much about. There’s a catch though. I have to make myself stop the reading and start writing, and that’s not always easy.

    Reply
  3. Karen Duvall

    Great blog post, Nicole! I’m currently reading Dissonance in A Minor and really enjoying it.

    The first novel I wrote (unpublished, thank God) was semi-autobiographical, but none of what happened in the story actually happened to me. However, there was a mom character in it and my mother was so concerned that I saw her the same way I saw the mom in my book. They were nothing alike, but people tend to glom onto that.

    I write fantasy now, so no one is thinking I can change into a gargoyle, predict sun storms, drive a demon-possessed taxi or read the past in mirrors. LOL. Even so, there are recurring themes in all my books that center around family. Dysfunctional and otherwise.

    Reply

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