“Write What You Know.” So, What Do You Know?

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Woman writing on laptop

You hear it all the time: “Write what you know.”

I happen to be one of those people who doesn’t feel comfortable writing about the unfamiliar. I prefer to write what’s real to me, things I know for sure.

This has been on my mind a lot lately. There’s always the sinking feeling that one doesn’t really know all that much–not in comparison to how much the world has to offer. Take a look through your bookstore or library, and you’ll see hundreds of books you could never have written.

Still, I think it’s counterproductive to dwell on all the things we can’t write about. Instead, try this: take 10 minutes and list things you really know. Be as random as you like.

Here’s are some things I know for sure:

  • I know the glow of a life growing inside of me.
  • I know what it’s like to have so much snow in one’s front yard, your house disappears.
  • I know that Lake Superior never looks the same twice.
  • I know what the sunburnt Australian grass feels like beneath my bare feet.
  • I know what it’s like to leave everything you’ve ever known behind, in search of a new life.
  • I know the powerful connection between my fingers and a piano keyboard.
  • I know how it feels to miss the senior prom.
  • I know what it’s like to have to sell one’s most prized possession.
  • I know the way watercolours bleed when you blot them with a wet brush.
  • I know Hamlet’s soliloquy by heart.
  • I know the smell of barbequed hot dogs and mustard in the summertime.

Once you get started, you might find, as I did, that you don’t want to stop. I could have gone on forever.

I know relationships, I know experiences. I know music and art.

What do you know?

I guarantee, you have more stories in you than you think.

{ 16 comments }

Lydia Sharp March 5, 2010 at 12:45 am

This is great advice, Suzannah! Making a list not only helps you write about what you do know, but I’ve found that knowing what you know helps you to make writing what you don’t know more realistic. (Sorry if that made no sense. haha.)
I encounter this all the time because I write science fiction and fantasy. For example, I’ve never been in a space shuttle, so I don’t know what it feels like to be in zero gravity. However, I can *imagine* it by thinking about something I do know: jumping on a trampoline, or jumping off a diving board. In both those cases, you have a few seconds of weightlessness. Not the same thing, but it’s as close as I can get. That’s just one example.
.-= Read Lydia Sharp´s last article ..52 Qualities of the Prosperous Writer: Number Nine, Saleable =-.

suzannah March 5, 2010 at 2:23 am

Lydia,

That’s really interesting. Science Fiction and Fantasy have never been on my writing agenda, because they’re not familiar to me. Still, I see how you use the knowledge and experiences you do have to imagine things you don’t really know. Great point, thanks :)

Lydia Sharp March 5, 2010 at 4:45 am

Join the Dark Side, Suzannah. We have cookies… and trampolines. Haha.
.-= Read Lydia Sharp´s last article ..52 Qualities of the Prosperous Writer: Number Nine, Saleable =-.

suzannah March 5, 2010 at 7:44 am

I don’t do trampolines, but boy, do I do cookies! Count me in, Lydia!

suzen March 5, 2010 at 1:46 am

This is wonderful, Suzannah! I’d like to add – if there is something you would LIKE to know about – dig into it! I love researching – must be some inquisitive gene – but once I’m on a topic, one book leads to another to another and before long I realize that I’ve acquired a mini-self-education on something that yesteryear I knew nothing about! That opens up a whole topic to write about. I just did that on my blog about the food industry. It really serves as a public safety alert – hope you will stop by and read it!
Hugs
suZen

suzannah March 5, 2010 at 2:19 am

Thanks for pointing that out, Suzen. Yes, we can always know more by taking the initiative to learn about them. One thing I find particularly difficult to write about, if I don’t have first hand experience, is place. If I haven’t spent a significant amount of time in a place, I really don’t feel confident writing about it.

Paulo Campos March 5, 2010 at 3:18 am

A weekend project I’ve been doing my best to accomplish each week is to sit down, unplug all distractions, and force myself to list 100 things about a specific topic (last weekend, since we were hit by a maniac storm on Friday my list was “Things About Snow”). It’s hard work and is often struggle to finish.

Because I’m looking for plot and character and setting ideas, I hadn’t really thought about it before reading this post, but one of the things that this exercise can really helps me figure out is what I don’t know and what I do, since these lists tend to have more of the latter.

Thanks for another great post!
.-= Read Paulo Campos´s last article ..Anatomy of EEK! Part Two: Don’t Show, Don’t Tell =-.

suzannah March 5, 2010 at 7:50 am

Paulo,

I need to do that too–spend a weekend free of distractions, free of the internet, free of email… I really like your idea of listing 100 things about a specific topic. I’ll try that one myself soon. Thank you!

winnie March 5, 2010 at 5:53 am

Wow this is wonderful, and that is why I wrote my book about me and my relationships, especially the last one. Great job.

suzannah March 5, 2010 at 7:47 am

Thanks Winnie. Relationships are something we women know a lot about, right? :) They are at the heart of characterization.

Sarah March 5, 2010 at 7:41 am

What a great list–and you’re right, there’s so much more! I am going to use this as an exercise to get me unstuck in my writing…just your list gave me tons of story ideas. Sarah
.-= Read Sarah´s last article ..Sleep on it… =-.

suzannah March 5, 2010 at 7:49 am

Sarah,

I wanted to keep going with this list, but I was so tired after a long day of travelling! I will, however, find some quiet time today and continue with this list. Glad you found it helpful!

Stina March 5, 2010 at 3:16 pm

My current book is based on something I was interested in during grad school, and which seems like a unique topic for a YA book. The idea really started to take shape while I was glancing through a kids’ magazine. But if it hadn’t been for my previous interest in the topic, I would have flipped right past the article without giving it a second glance.

I liked your exercise. I’ll keep it in mind when I get stuck for a new idea–not that it’s been a problem yet.
.-= Read Stina´s last article ..Striving To Be Better =-.

suzannah March 5, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Stina,

Even if you’re not stuck for story ideas, it’s a fun exercise. I promise! You’ll be amazed at what you come up with once you get started.

Veronica Purcell March 10, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Thanks for the exercise idea. As I read through your list, my mind wandered to my own and I was soon mapping out a story. I feel all giddy.
.-= Read Veronica Purcell´s last article ..After the Fall Ebook Trailer =-.

suzannah March 11, 2010 at 2:18 pm

I know, so many interesting things surfaced when I started my own list. I’m glad you’re giddy!

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