Wednesday, October 2, 2013

True or false: write what you know

I’m an editor mostly now but I started as an author. I’d like to share with you something I still hear, taken literally, that I think means something else entirely.

Always, authors are told to “write what you know.”  I did some research on who first said this and while this is most frequently attributed to Mark Twain, there is a general consensus that no one really knows who first said it. Surprisingly, the general consensus is also that the saying should be banned. Or at least an author’s reliance on it.

So, what does “write what you know” mean, really?

Well, some believe it should be taken literally— writers should not write about things we have not personally experienced. This is actually the definition I heard many years ago. Now, I find it very amusing and my reaction to it can be summed up by a quote from Robert Duncan—“If I write what you know, I bore you; if I write what I know, I bore myself, therefore I write what I don’t know.”

Isn’t that great?

Here’s another by Howard Nemerov that made me laugh—“Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.”

So true. Now, I don’t consider myself uninformed. I’m smart. I know stuff. But I don’t know enough about places and things to infuse my stories with the atmosphere readers want. Because while we read about characters, we also read for places and things. If I were to write only about what I know, I’d be writing short, flat stories.

I write paranormal stories. I have yet to meet a fallen angel, demon or a shape-shifting rock (Relic Defender: Key of Solomon). I have yet to experience life in a futuristic Earth (Hit Me With Your Best Shot) or travel to another planet. I have yet to visit Egypt and see the pyramids at Giza (Children of Egypt: Blood on the Moon). I have yet to explore the Mayan ruins in South America. Yet, these are all places I have visited in my research and in my imagination.

I’d like to leave you with another great quote on author’s writing what they know. This is from Valerie Sherwood: “Don’t write what you know—what you know may bore you, and thus bore your readers. Write about what interests you—and interests you deeply—and your readers will catch fire at your words.”

Would my writing be any better if I experienced some of these things? Maybe. I don’t know. I think what makes it great is that I haven’t been there so I can infuse my stories with the passion of discovering something new. And that’s what I try to do.

If you read my books, I hope you agree.

Cassiel Knight


  1. I agree wholeheartedly! The third quote really hits home. My goodness, I think of the stories I have planned out that will keep me busy for another 60 years can't wait to experience them.

    There's nothing like experiencing the world vicariously through a story. It makes the morning cup of coffee and time spent in the reading chair (or the writing desk) open up into another dimension.

  2. I love that final saying about writing what interests you. I've also written a couple stories to help me heal from something in my life or that of someone close to me. Haven't put those stories out there yet, but it's right in line with what you are saying. Write what you are passionate about.
    Maybe it's time to dust those stories off. :)

  3. Write what you know. Sure. That's why Johannes Kepler wrote about going to the moon, Jules Verne about submarines, and Isaac Asimov about self-aware robots. More accurately, start with what you know, then learn, imagine, and embroider. Maybe what you end up with will eventually happen--moon landings, check; submarines, check; conscious robots, shudder. In the end, all good writing is an exploration of the human condition, and we all have a bit of knowledge about that.

  4. Great post! I love your quotes. I'd like to add another one, although I don't remember who said that. "Write what you feel." All writing is about human emotions. I write fantasy, set in an imaginary world, with magic. It goes without saying I don't know anything about it. I make it up as I type. But the emotions of my heroine are something I experienced. I know how it feels to be upset or angry, surprised or self-doubting. That's what I write.

  5. Oh, boy. "Write what you Know" I have never lived in a castle, never ridden a horse in a race, can't imagine slicing someone's arm off with a sword, but I write about it. I agree with Olga, it's about the emotions, how you imagine you would feel.