From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, August 7, 2017

5 Different Ways To Think About "Write What You Know"

1. Write What You Want To Find Out.

If we all stuck with what we knew, our libraries would be full of pretty dull ink blots. J.K. Rowling would have never written about wizards living under staircases. J.R. Tolkien would have never given us Hobbitses, precious. Dan Wells would never have been able to write about a straight up psychopath. (At least, one would hope...). So really, the only thing stopping me from writing a story about an NBA star isn't that I'm a 5'4 white girl with the coordination of a banana, but that I... well, frankly, Kobe I don't give a flan. It's not what I want to find out about. If you're a 5'4 white girl with the coordination of a banana and for you the NBA is one of those brown paper packages favorite things type of things, then don't let anybody tell you you can't write about it. Write about what you care about. Write about what you're willing to dive into. What you're willing to research and put your blood, sweat, and other bodily fluids into.

2. Write What You DON'T Know.

This isn't actually contradictory to the traditional "write what you know" advice slung from every level of writer blogdom high and low. In fact they go hand in hand. Let me explain. No there is too much, let me some up. Buttercup is marry Humperdink in little less than...wait, where were we? Oh yeah. Ok, so there are lots of things you DO know lots about, right? Maybe you're the worlds foremost Han Dynasty expert. You've read all the books just because you're a Han nerd. (Lay off Leia, he's mine! Wait, wrong Han...) You can tell the difference between a Han pot and a Shin pot in thirty seconds flat. Maybe you know you want to write about the Han dynasty in your novel, but are having a hard time figuring out what approach to take. Well, think of it this way. What are the gaps in your otherwise extensive knowledge? Where's the loose tooth in your jaw? The gap in the fence that your creepy neighbors keep spying on you through? Cover that hole! Find that missing plank and form it into something beautiful. Write the thing you DON'T know.

3. Write What Puts You In The Freak Show.

You know you have a freak side. We all do. What I mean is, we all have something that puts us in the maligned 1%, and it ain't gotta be moulah. Maybe you grew up with a neighbor who cast spells on your house every night. Maybe you're dad works on a station in Antarctica and you've visited him. Maybe you were born with a rare disease that makes all your farts smell like grass clippings. I don't know. But you do. And maybe it's not something you normally think of as that strange, or it might take you a while to realize how unique it is. Take that part of you and run with it. Don't be shy. Fart those grass clippings. It might be hard. It might be vulnerable. But it sure could be the claw that pulls your little squeaky alien self out of the overcrowded prize box.

4. Write Where You Live.

So maybe this one hits home for me specifically because I live in a city that I don't think I've ever seen represented in fiction. Heck, my entire state isn't particularly hot on the Hollywood/Bestseller list. (What was the last show to be set in Utah...Sister Wives? Ugh). Ok, ok, obviously there are plenty of awesome and wonderful things set in Utah and in my little old Provo specifically, but there could definitely be more. And in all likelihood its the same for wherever you live. Everybody wants to set their stories in New York or Chicago, but you're not everybody, you're you you shimmering, powerful, rainbow-studded stallion you. Plus, writing where you live won't merely help you stand out, it'll also make it easy for you to write a totally authentic and refreshing story because it's a story from where you're standing. So go outside, breathe the Natchitoches or Pocatello or Karaganda air, or wherever it is you breathe where you live. (Hey, you might be a blobfish with good wifi. I don't know your life.) Then come back inside and breathe it onto the page, rich and pungent.

5. Write Who You Know.

Ok, so I don't mean copying wholesale your weird uncle who dyes his beard turquoise and whose footprints look like claws. (Ok, but if you for real have an uncle with claws for feet write that shiz.) I don't even necessarily mean digging out the strangest humans in your vicinity and morphing them so they fit on a page, although that's not necessarily a bad idea. In fact, sure, do that. But also don't forget that large groups also have personality. We call it culture. It's why you're called "Ma'am" in Texas and... something less nice in New York. Whoever you're surrounded by has already got their grubby, grimy, culture-filthy stench all over you, so you might as well take full advantage of it. The people in Baton Rouge are different from my people here in Utah Valley. They just are. And I want to see that. Zoom in and show us those differences. Get right up close enough to count the nose hairs. Okay maybe you don't need to be that close, but take the people around you and use them as inspiration. Tell your story and don't forget that they're the context.

More ideas for thinking about "Write What You Know"? Leave them in comments!

Read More: From Kristen Lamb: What Truly Makes a Powerful Female Character
Submission Opportunity: Parabola is accepting Non-Fiction articles.


  1. Not sure if my geek side puts me in a freak show or not...
    There's so much in this world we don't know and could research - endless possibilities.

  2. I interpret 'write what you know' as the feelings - I know grief and euphoria and boredom and anger and jealousy. Now, I can write characters who'll work through those, in situations that I'm not necessarily familiar with.


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