It’s OK to Write What You Don’t Know

Mark Twain started it when he said, “Write what you know.” From then on, writers have taken that as gospel. Dig deep. Scratch out what you feel/think/are passionate about and bleed it onto the page. As new writers it’s one of three truths pounded into us–Show don’t tell, Murder your babies, and Write what you know.

No one ever asks, “Don’t novelists make stuff up?” It doesn’t seem to matter than no one’s ever seen DC blow up though thriller writers postulate it all the time. How about a massive gorilla atop the Empire State Building? Fantasy writers make up whole worlds and species. As do Sci Fi aficionados. Did they not get the memo? What about Hannibal Lector, cutting people’s heads open to eat their living brain? Or Criminal Minds‘ psycho killers? I’d rather drink Drano than think they’re real.

In a rational literary world, making stuff up makes sense. It’s called ‘fiction’, which Webster defines as ‘not real’ (I’ve abbreviated, but you get the idea). How does that jive with ‘Write what you know’. What Mark Twain should have said–maybe meant to say–was ‘Lie creatively. Do your research, weave with zest, be believable, and write’. But that’s got all the literary charisma of a dirty needle.

Maybe he meant it as a suggestion, Write what you know. Or not. Your choice.

I confess, I tried to ‘write what I know’. I imagined what people I knew would do in particular circumstances and wrote that story. It was boring. Then, I researched a topic, got all the details exquisitely perfect and then added fiction characteristics like characters, setting, crises, pacing–stuff like that. It was creative nonfiction before that was invented. I figured I was still ‘writing what I knew’, just embellishing.

No one bought it. I actually loved it, but not so much I didn’t recognize that it had no power, passion, or pull.

That’s when the truth hit me: Great authors don’t write what they know. They write what they wish they knew or should know. Maybe they include their politics or morals or some other closely-held opinions, like sauce on an over-cooked chicken, but the rest is fiction.

Today, twenty years and counting into my writing fantasy, I’m ready to admit I’ve been duped. If you. like me. have seen the truth, I invite you to a virtual Write-What-You-Know Writers Anonymous meeting. Add your name to the Comment section below. I’ll start. Hi. My name is Jacqui, and I’m a recovering WWYKW. Since my epiphany, I’ve written ten thousand eight hundred and seventy words that have no basis in my life, history, or reality.

Who’s next?

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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22 thoughts on “It’s OK to Write What You Don’t Know

  1. If I wrote what I know… I’d only write about budgeting and financial reporting software, coffee and the importance of homegrown vegetables in one’s diet.

    Hmm. I do write about coffee a lot. Maybe I do need to add my name to the list.

  2. I think the ‘Write What You Know’ topic is more about theme than characters and setting. I wrote a book about teens in the 1920s, something I had to research a lot. But the theme of my book was making your own decisions and growing up, something I’m very familiar with.

    If you’re passionate about what you’re writing, I think it shows through because you ‘know’ that topic, it’s something you can feel. Even if you have to research the details, you can still know it.

    • I have always thought so too, Sam, until I did some research preparing for this article. I wanted to see what the overarching ‘take’ was on this topic–and was surprised people often take it literally. I think that’s why there are so many literary fiction writers–we know our own emotions, thoughts, worries much better than history, mystery, and how to end the world.

  3. I was reading some advice was from Terry Pratchett a while back and it basically boiled down to something like: “If you want to write in flying pigs then write them in. Just make sure the people living in those areas carry very stout umbrellas.”
    I’m paraphrasing of course, but it was one of the best bits of advice I’ve read so far and matches perfectly with what you’re saying.

  4. Thank you Jackie for that very freeing advice. I am beginning my first novel and am struggling because my protagonist is a man. How do I write from a man’s perspective if I’m not a man. I guess I just make it up. That’s fiction right? As writers we’re supposed to “make things up.”

    • I’d have trouble with that one, too, but it’s done all the time. As is the reverse. How far along are you?

      • I have the outline finished. I have to put in the scenes. I have certain parts finished as they were assignments given in class. Because my protagonist is a man I’m afraid to do 1st person so I’m thinking maybe 3rd person limited? What do u think?

        • 1st person is more intimate, but that’s probably not preferable for your first cross-gender novel. I like 3rd person. It allows closeness, but is more flexible. Is this character-driven or plot-driven?

          • I think it’s more plot driven. Although I just finished reading Donna Tartt, The Secret History, and I have to say I loved her writing style. I still think about those characters even after I finished the book. Did you read it? It’s amazing and has so altered the way I look at writing characters. Thanks for taking the time to help me. I really appreciate it!

            • I didn’t read it, but it’s on my list now. I love finding books people are over-the-top excited about. Thanks for the rec!

              • Sure, I loved it. Now I waiting for her latest book, The Goldfinch. I want to make my characters memorable even though the plot centers around a women who was abused by her mother and my protagonist was in the foster care system. I still want to make my characters stand out the way Donna did. I’m pretty sure she wrote it from the 1st person viewpoint. It a big goal but what the heck right?

  5. A really interesting post, thank you.

    I write what I know on my blog – as a domestic abuse survivor I’m passionate about the subject – but I want to set my (possibly never to be completed) book in a country to which I’ve never visited. Am I crazy?!

    Maybe sci-fi writers have it ‘easier’, because if they invent the species and characters, nobody can tell them they’ve got the facts wrong!

    • You have that experience that should be told. So many people can benefit from your experience.

      Setting can be nicely learned these days with Google Earth. Just type in the international address and drop in on the neighborhood with Street View Guy. I’ve been amazed what I learn that way.

  6. Hi. My name is Melissa, and I’m a recovering WWYKW. Since my epiphany, I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words that have no basis on my life, history, or reality…

    Great post. I think if we were to be bold and decree a new rule it should be to write about what you don’t know as often as possible. Of course, there should be an addendum – that, unless creating a completely alternative universe you should do a little research first! We need to be believable, and yet who but a writer can string a group of words together to make people think we are the foremost expert on a subject 🙂

  7. I’m still a (kind of) believer in Write What You know (hides head from flying objects) 😉 because it’s a great way to start writing, then as we develop our skills we move away from it. It’s fine for a 15 year old girl to write from the viewpoint of an 80 year old man living with cancer, but if an 80 year old man living with cancer wrote it, it may have more grit. This is an extreme example, but I think the WWYKW advice is probably good for newer writers. I notice a lot of younger writers now are writing about zombies and magic because they know a lot about it having been brought up with the numerous amounts of books and TV shows on these subjects. I think the phrase should be Write What You’re Interested In because we always know a lot about the things we’re interested in. I hope that makes sense! 😀

  8. It does. I started valiantly sticking to what I knew which got me through a couple of chapters. Then Imagination kicked in. Writing about stuff was a lot more fun than figuring out how to do it in realtime (ride a submarine, be a grad student at Columbia, roam the African savannah–don’t those sound cool?).

  9. Im afraid Im a fabrication mostly in my fantasy novels. I write about the places and creatures I wish I could meet Jacqui.

    • It people like you that really got me thinking. Fantasy writers have to write what they don’t know–so what’s wrong with that? Turns out, I’m late to the party on this one.

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