Writing What you (don’t) know



For many years, I’ve heard both writers and normal people repeat a line of such utter nonsense it’s anyone’s guess how it became popular: “Write what you know.”

If I wrote what I knew, I’d be writing about someone who sits around and writes much of the day while having imaginary conversations with imaginary people doing imaginary things. What a waste of time. Why not jot down those conversations and call them a novel?

Alternately, I could be writing about dogs. While I have written one nonfiction book about dogs, (Wonder Dogs: 101 German Shepherd Dog Films) and dogs do often pop up in my fiction, the subject does not hold a lot of interest for me in a literary sense. I know too much about dogs to enjoy writing about them.

People who write historical fiction never write what they know. You can swallow the research library, but have you ever been in a joust? Have you ever survived a sword blow? Have you ever jumped from one moving railcar to another?

For the vast majority of people who write fiction, writing what you know would turn your epic masterpieces into something either dreadfully dull by comparison, or much too personal for you to ever want published. Or both.

I can think of little in the world more tedious than writing about the things I know and have done and experienced. Not because my life is shockingly dull, but because I do not have any interest in my own life when compared to the lives of my characters. They might be doing anything from being trapped without food by a Yukon blizzard in 1897, to acting in a third-rate Hollywood film of 1922, to fighting for their lives in a modern day hospital. They can not only be anywhere in the world, but anywhere in time. They can be anyone and live any life.

Then there’s me: Sitting here at my computer, writing, sipping a tall glass of water with powdered vitamins in it: Hoping people around me don’t start coming down with the swine flu.

Whose story would you rather read?

Jordan Taylor


Advent Calendar Giveaway!

Name three movies that are profiled in Wonder Dogs: 101 German Shepherd Dog Films. A random winner from all correct answers will be selected to receive a gift certificate to Amazon.

30 Responses

  1. Ah yes, the old ‘write what you know’ thing. Doesn’t work through logically, does it? Because Tolkein would have had to be an ent and O’Brian a Post Captain.

    Good points – love the jousting piccy.


    • No, it doesn’t. I still see and hear the phrase pop up all the time though. You’d think they believe Tolkein was an ent, or Rowling went to Hogwarts. Thanks! Erastes provided the photos. 🙂

  2. Hemingway has a *lot* to answer for.

  3. LOL so true! And that white-out blizzard pic goes really well with the snowflakes drifting across the screen…

  4. Thank you, thank youy, thank you! Much better to write about what we’d LIKE to know.

  5. Hi Jordan –

    1. Ace of Hearts (2008)
    2. Bad Moon (1996)
    3. The Call of the Wild (1972)

    Thanks so much for your piece. Happy Holidays.

  6. Excellent post, Jordan. Doesn’t really make sense unless you’re writing non-fiction. Even then, no one knows everything and each time we write we should learn more.

    • Thank you. That’s right. Being able to expand our own knowledge as a result of writing is one of the great things about the whole process.

  7. Atta Girl, Kelly!; The Flaming Signal; and Torchy Gets Her Man.

    Yeah, the write what you know rule makes less and less sense the more I think about it (and I’ve been thinking about it more since I wandered over onto the m/m side of the fence.) As with so many other things, where do you draw the line in the sand, between sufficient knowledge and insufficient?

    I’ve got a perfectly good imagination; I should be putting it to good use.

    • The beauty of fiction! Of course we all want to do a good job at research. But you put your finger on it: this is imagination. Or inspiration, or the people in our heads, whatever we want to call it. Our stories are our own personal creations. Every fiction writer in the world is also the only person in the world who has sufficient knowledge to tell the stories they tell. Kind of blurs the line even more.

  8. The link on the post has not been working, but the website where you can find the list of films for the giveaway question is here:

  9. Hi Jordan!

    Call of the Wild
    Parent Trap

    Love those pooches!

  10. Good intro, Jordan!

    “Write what you know” is, to me, tantamount to “be content in your ignorance.”

    Now, in honor of German Shepherds, silent films, melodramatic titles, and (doesn’t it sound that way?) werewolves and shifters:

    * Claws (1922)
    * Avenging Fangs (1927)
    * King of the Pack (1926)

    • Aren’t those titles great? Pretty much everything in 1920s Hollywood was melodramatic. One of my personal favorites is Jaws of Steel from 1927. That one always makes me think of X-Men. Then there are all the Fang titles: Fangs of Destiny, Fangs of Fate, Fangs of Justice, Fangs of Vengeance, etc. All from the 1920s. Some of these definitely sound like highly sensationalized werewolf stories.

  11. “You can swallow the research library, but have you ever been in a joust?”

    Yes! Once. But sadly, if I were to write what I knew about that, it would be a very short story about splatting but good. Very uncomfortable. Beautiful picture in the post, though.

    As for German Shepard movies, I stuck to ones I’ve seen, so:

    Call of the Yukon (1938)
    Radio Flyer (1992)
    The Return of Boston Blackie (1927)

  12. I, being almost seventy, remember the wondrous movies of George Arliss: Disraeli, Richelieu, The Rothschilds. Those were glorious melodramas. And just think, soon our TVs will be showing Alistar Simm’s glorious “A Christmas Caro.l” Hooray for melodrama!

    Keep in mind, I’m the one who hates romance.

  13. Ah, yes… “Write what you know.” That phrase has ALWAYS made me grind my teeth. As a lover of historical fiction (both reading and writing) the very notion makes me shudder. If every writer took that to heart, historical fiction wouldn’t exist. In fact, I doubt if I would read as much as I presently do as I am most definitely NOT interested in chick lit.

    And just think, if everyone wrote only what they knew, Harry Potter would never have seen the light of day. (And er, nor would the Twilight stories come to that…)

    There would be no Dr Who or Torchwood.

    “Write what you know” has to be the most useless piece of advice to give to any writer. Ever.

    • Hear, hear. I knew I couldn’t be the only one thinking that saying was psychotic. Even not having Twilight in existence would not be worth people writing only what they know, though it might be tempting.

  14. Ah, you found my weakness–though I don’t have a German Shepherd Dog because I can’t afford one that’s been tested for hip dysplasia, and having gone through that once–never again. The most gorgeous dogs in the whole world…

    Just randomly guessing, I’ll bet Call of the Wild and Hound of the Baskervilles – because half the twits in Hollywood wouldn’t know that those dogs weren’t German Shepherds. And, of course Rin Tin Tin, the GSD I watched as a kid–though my first love was White Shadow, on one of the old Disney serials.

    Absolutely, Why Write What You Know? Though some people can, and I expect we all have some interesting anecdotes.

    Have you ever read Kinship with All Life? It was written by J Allen Boone, and is mostly about the original movie hero GSD Strongheart, who apparently taught Boone a great deal.

    • There are indeed two different versions of The Call of the Wild in there. I’m afraid The Hound of the Baskervilles did not make the cut. Although I had originally short-listed one of the versions, I had to pick 101 out of about 450 films, so a lot had to go. There is information on the White Shadow dogs in there. The white GSDs are so beautiful, and Dorothy Crider’s dogs were really amazing.

      Yes, Boone was a huge Strongheart fan. There’s another gorgeous dog.

      I’m so sorry you had to go through dysplasia with a Shepherd. It’s heartbreaking to see these wonderful dogs crippled. Not to mention incredibly expensive for their owners to fight it.

  15. One of these days, I am gonna get my courage up and try my hand at a historical novel- set in the Edwardian period.

    Right now, still trying to stand on wobbly writers legs, I hesitate at trying. I love history with a passion, and have day dreamed off and on on so many senerios it;s not even funny.

    But one of theses days — just you wait! I will surprise everyone (including myself) and start writing an historical — or at least start out writing time travel into the past!

  16. Hi Jordan,
    Great subject, with lots of insightful reponses, but just a thought! I was once told that the best lies have an element of the truth in them!! Thinking about this brought me to the conclusion that in reality, when we write about something some fictional event, to make it plausible we do infact combin a little of what we know in a fictional context or landscape.

    As an obvious example, in my writing’s the personalities are based on composits of people I know (except for the villains, which for a reason I’ve never figured out don’t need this). Also some of the events described draw heavily from personal experience, but are placed in exotic locations or times or both.

    Oh the joy of fiction writing!

    Is this not what they are talking about when they say write what you know?


    • It’s “Write what you know” not “Write about what you have personally experienced.” Although the latter is very useful as a subset for the former.

      Certainly the captains in my own novels are heavily influenced by my experience with captains I have served under, but they are also influenced by captains I have read about in fact and fiction. I would be dubious about works written by authors lacking in both areas.

      • I doubt you’ll find any authors in the Macaronis who do not research their subjects in fact and fiction. You are certainly lucky in living near a seaport where you have the opportunity to spend time on tall ships, but I know–and have been given vast assistance by–two other writers who have volunteered on square-riggers. And I’m not the only Mac who has been given the gift of such hands-on advice. Without condescension, which is a rare and beautiful thing.

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