Using “Write what you know” as a starting point

“Write what you know.”

This is an often heard phrase in high school English classes and a great tip, especially for new writers. This does not mean that you need to write about YOUR life. It simply means take things you are familiar with and use these as a springboard into your story.

Use your fear of snakes and how it makes you feel as inspiration for a novel. Or if you grew up on a farm, it will be easy for you to write a story set on a farm or ranch.

Now that isn’t to say you have to set your story here. You can easily set it in New York City. But then you need to visit or at least research it well enough to write intelligently about someone living there.

I often write about how the little details are important and how getting these details wrong can jar the reader out of the story. This is where writing about things you know can help.

Now there is nothing wrong with writing a story about some line of work you don’t know or some location you have never visited. Many writers do just that. To write about a serial killer doesn’t mean you need to go kill someone, and you can write about space travel without ever living Earth. It is all about researching and imagination.

You can certainly interview a police officer to learn their procedures and investigation techniques. You can take classes on using a gun or use the Internet to research any number of topics. I am all for research.

But there is a level of authenticity that outsiders just can’t match. Someone who has lived in the mountains and braved a cold winter, someone who has done archery or competed in a beauty pageant will be able to bring a little extra realism to their work than someone who only did research.

Many people hear the advice to use what you know and panic. They think there is nothing in their lives to write about, or that they lead a boring life. But this advice is not about that. There is no way you want to limit your writing to just those events. But take your experiences and allow your imagination to go wild. Take things that you have experienced as a starting point and let your characters make it their own.

Writing what you know can mean putting it into a different world or a different time. I am not saying to write about your life. I am talking about taking your experiences, your fears, your dreams, and your knowledge – whether it be or a location, a hobby or a profession – and put those things into your story.

Writing is a mixture of these things – our experiences, our research and our imaginations. The right mixture make up a good story.  So next time you hear “write what you know,” don’t panic. Realize that you already know a lot of what matters to a story’s success. It is just waiting to be shaped by your imagination.


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