If you write what you know, where do you get ideas?

What does this phrase mean, ‘write what you know’? New writers are often baffled by it, and feel their creativity has been stomped on. Most of us have a regular life with average troubles and jobs that aren’t the stuff of stories. And we want to write fiction to escape, explore, expand – so how do we do it?

Find your people in fiction

Great stories come from great characters. We might know a few people in real life with traits that are good story fodder, but not suitable wholesale. Most writers get inspired by characters they meet on the page – and especially in fiction.

In the UK at the moment there’s a scandal about an eccentric disc jockey and charity worker. He died a year ago and now we’re stunned to hear he’s accused of indecent acts. An often heard remark is ‘how could someone who did such immense good also do such evil’? Read some literature, though, and you’ll know – very well – how it is possible for remarkable people to have extreme sides.

More than any other written medium, novels can give us a person stripped bare, scrutinised in three dimensions. We see how they behave with their friends, family, strangers, people they think will never see them again. We can peek at what goes through their heads when they’re on their own. That’s a level of honesty you don’t even get in historical texts or biography. And you certainly don’t get that access to the people you rub along with in real life.

Reading fiction gives you characters you’re curious to understand, and that can guide who you’re interested to write.

Find your plots in your obsessions

Some novels are written about normal, domestic lives. But many more are about characters in danger, or on the edges of society, or realms of the extreme and extraordinary. Have all those writers had racy, perilous lives? Most have not; their natural habitat is usually a desk, like you and me. (Or if they have been adventurers, the chances are they don’t do the writing too.)

Ghostwriters, historical novelists, crime writers, fantasy and science fiction novelists are the living proof that you don’t have to have to write what you have personally experienced. But what these writers are good at is thorough research, led by genuine interest, so they can inhabit these environments as though they were real.

Write what you know – don’t let this stuffy phrase smother your imagination. Novels are not created by your daily life, but your inner life.

You’re interested in certain kinds of people? That’s who you ‘know’, on a writing level. You’re interested in certain kinds of story, settings or time periods? There’s what you  know – or can know – well enough to write about.

Thanks for the pic H Koppdelaney

What feeds your writing and how different is it from your life? Are there other pieces of writing advice you’d like to take a hammer to? Share in the comments!

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  1. #1 by mgm75 on October 28, 2012 - 8:22 pm

    At last somebody says what I have been thinking for years! Though no doubt some ideas start with what the writer “knows”, I feel this only makes up about 1% of the creative process. Imagination always works best.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 29, 2012 - 7:55 am

      Thanks! Certainly something has to come from real life, but our imaginative tastes are far broader than the events and people fate has thrown in our path.

  2. #3 by philipparees on October 28, 2012 - 8:39 pm

    I think what ‘you know’ clothes (convincingly) what you do not, but what can make the imagined real. I tend to write fiction about what I hope could be the case, but to anchor it, I have to ‘place’ my characters in what I know, or something close to it, so as to move from there into the entirely plausible. If I were to set characters in an entirely fictional environment or imagined, I think the bounds would be limitless and I would flail about. Which is probably why I could not write science fiction, unless its penetration was into the familiar world. Inevitably this leads to problems with the ‘cross genre’ appellation! Neither fish fowl nor good red……

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 29, 2012 - 8:09 am

      Hi Philippa! SF penetrating into the real world… I think many a fine story has come from such concepts, so you’d be in good company. Just not immediately saleable to UK publishers!
      This does raise the question: once you are free to invent and create, what do you add to make the story feel genuine and convincing? Obviously our own understanding of universal situations like loss and yearning. But I’m sure I’ve learned and ‘experienced’ as much through the work of writers, poets, artists and musicians as I have in everyday dimensions.

  3. #5 by Inion N. Mathair on October 29, 2012 - 12:18 am

    I liked this post alot Roz! I whole heartedly agree with you. Funny enough, we just watched an HBO special, titled: “The Girl”. It was a look at Alfred Hitchcock, and his inappropriate obsessive behavior towards one of his actresses, Tippy Hedren. According to this movie, he was disgusting with Tippy, sexually aggressive, and peverted and abusing her constantly even attacking her. My daughter says to me, “Ewww… Did you know he was a freak?!” I started laughing, and said, well, I don’t think there was a person out there, that didn’t toy with the notion that the man was slightly dark! But he used that darkness, to create phenominal works of art. Bottom line, the man was a genius! Much like the DJ you were talking about, many sides…some good some bad. On the other hand. I remember
    watching Seinfeld, I was a huge fan as many were. And in one of their episodes, they make a joke, that they will supply a television producer, with a script of a show that’s about nothing….a play on what Seinfeld was about. Just four normal people, with boring lives, and basically, nothing special. But funny enough, the show had mad success doing it. Just goes to show you, nothing can be big if written right, and performed well. As you said, “Great stories come from great characters.” Once again, brilliant post Roz!

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 29, 2012 - 8:21 am

      Hi Inion! I can never tire of hearing stories about Hitchcock.He was a frighteningly clever manipulator of audiences and that must give a clue to the way he would handle his leading players.
      Another example is Roman Polanski. We just watched Bitter Moon, a fantastic film that treats its characters mercilessly. One of the actors was his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner – and you wonder how you could ask your own loved ones to peel themselves so completely. But he’s a ruthless servant of the art. And as we know, he transgressed a few social rules in his own life…

      I never got round to watching Seinfeld, but that episode sounds terrific. When characters get well established, you have the opportunity to play with what the audience knows – and that all comes from the people.
      Moonlighting had the episode where the cast performed The Taming Of The Shrew. Buffy had the musical episode – which was a laugh but also explored some of the tensions and desires that were building up in the characters. One Foot In The Grave had an episode that was Victor Meldrew’s monologue in the bath.

  4. #7 by Sally - aka Saleena on October 29, 2012 - 11:18 am

    Great post Roz, and I agree completely that’s about inner knowledge and not the outer – so basically, psychology. If writers literally limited themselves to writing what they personally know and experience, entire genres, e.g. sci-fi and fantasy would largely not be written at all. Light-speed travel? Teleportation? Telepathy? Reincarnation? Have most writers of these things experienced these, or have they explored the social and psychological effects they might have on us? I once gave an interview where I was asked what my advice to every writer would be. I said: ‘Write from the heart’, and differentiated between that and the research needed to cover what you don’t know.

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 29, 2012 - 7:01 pm

      Sally – exactly! I think one of the reasons I enjoyed science at school was the story ideas it made me think of. I remember ‘inventing’ teleport technology with a fellow SF fan – we exchanged long letters about how it would work. And stories – as you say – explore the psychological and society effects. ‘Write from the heart’ is a great way to put it.

  5. #9 by Merita King on October 29, 2012 - 2:00 pm

    Great blog. My inspiration for plots comes from 2 places – movies and my own internal fantasies. I have a life going on inside my head; a life where I can put right what went wrong all those years ago, where I can make different choices and see where they lead, where I can stand up to those people who hurt me and put me down, where I can be beautiful and clever, a life where I can be with that special person who I’ve loved for so long, where that fictional character I adore can adore me back and where I can strive to overcome, nearly get lost but just make it and get the guy. My characters are a mixture of me as I am, me at my worst and me as I would love to be. They are the people who’ve hurt me in the past, those I’ve admired from afar and those I’ve hated. I take all of this and mix it up and the characters and plots come from this mix. It works for me.

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 29, 2012 - 7:03 pm

      Merita, that’s a lovely way to describe how a writer creates. Especially the way we might play ‘what if’ with people from the past, and perhaps rewrite rights and wrongs. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. #11 by danholloway on October 30, 2012 - 12:32 pm

    For me, “write what you know” is an explication of the central tenet of writing fiction whcih is to write the truth, your truth. It’s about digging right inside and bringing that truth out – how you dress it up in terms of characters and story is the fiction bit and if you’re a writer it’s your imagination’s job to do that any way it pleases – that has nothing to do with “what you know”

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 30, 2012 - 1:49 pm

      ‘Write your truth’… to which I would reply ‘fiction tells a deeper truth than fact’. Prose – and poetry – being so private, can really excavate these depths. More visual, literal media like film struggle to get that same intimacy. Fantastic explanation, Dan.

  7. #13 by danholloway on October 30, 2012 - 1:56 pm

    “fiction tells a deeper truth than fact” – yes, absolutely. With apologies to Mr Gradgrind, when you are being factual, the concern with “facts” gets in the way of the truths that really matter

  8. #14 by Phil South on October 30, 2012 - 2:20 pm

    Great post, Roz, and I’ll take this opportunity to say I always enjoy your posts and expect nothing less than excellence from you. I usually nod approvingly but rarely comment. I should be more demonstrative or I will become the Internet version of a radio ventriloquist.

    “Write what you know” is another one of those old saws that people throw in your face all the time, and like all great pieces of advice it’s two things: perfect distillation of the facts and useful to remind yourself if you already know it, and a maddeningly obscure reference to something you don’t fully understand if you don’t.

    It’s like the flavour of the kind of advice parents give you as a teenager:
    “Please let me do this unsuitable and dangerous thing!”
    “No, you’ll know when you’re older”
    “But I want to know now. Why NOT?”
    “THAT’S why not.”
    and so on.

    And the worst thing is that like all good advice born of experience people not only don’t get it they take it so bleedin’ literally. If they are a fishmonger they think it means that they should write about fish. But who is to say that the would be writer/fishmonger isn’t also a divorcee with a dark secret, a lover of classical oboe music, a scat singer, a perfumer, a dog whisperer, a reader of 1950s horror comics, falling in love for the first time in their 40s or a part time children’s party clown/magician?

    The missing piece of advice I always think is this – for (expletive deleted) sake don’t write what you DON’T know as well as your own face!

    The biggest barrier to seeking and finding your own voice is to try and be something you are not, for purely commercial or ego reasons. I blame X Factor, but then I never miss an opportunity to blame them for anything. Many people think that being a writer means you can write about anything (a mistaken belief based on the fact that a good writer can write about anything she either has experience or a natural feel for). This makes them enter into unsuitable marriages with science fiction or wizards, or abusive relationships with literary fiction or young adult novellas.

    The reason this happens and the cure are one and the same: SELF AWARENESS. Honest intuition about who you are and what you like give you power. Honesty with yourself is crucial to being honest with your readers. It’s like companies who genuinely believe in making better products do better than those who merely seek a fast buck. One is congruent and one is incongruent. One is on a holy mission, and the other is nothing more than a burglar of ideas.

    My advice to students is just that, do you want to be on a “mission from god” driven from the white hot core of your soul or lurk like a thief and steal the missions of others and pass them off as your own?

    • #15 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 31, 2012 - 6:32 pm

      Phil, terrific to see you here! Glad you shipped off your cloak of silence.
      This is ground you touch on rather well in your Creative Genius course – when you talk about seeking inspiration in the things that interest you. And as you say here, experienced writers often end up trying to explain to bemused creatives why they shouldn’t take it literally.

      You touch on something else here too. Once a writer is given licence to experiment, it might take them a while to know where their writing soul really lives. Sometimes that mission is diverted by a wish to be ‘commercial’ or appeal to an agent, and do they force themselves into a hole they don’t fit in. Finding where you naturally belong is tricky indeed. To an extent, you have to spend time ‘burgling ideas’ (nice phrase!) before you hit your stride.

  9. #16 by courseofmirrors on October 30, 2012 - 2:26 pm

    An interesting theme, Roz. It brings to mind that only 1 percent of the iceberg is above water. Freud used this image when talking of the unconscious. And the iceberg is of course swimming in the big collective sea. Knowing facts does not equate with knowing what’s reflected in the depth of our psyche. The imaginative process homes in on the symbolic understanding of patterns and events. In my writing, the main character is only the switchboard for many other fascinating characters that reflect a facet of her inner world. And looking at it that way, all outer events in our lives are merely reflections of our inner world.

    • #17 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 31, 2012 - 6:35 pm

      Great to see you here, Ashen! And what a powerful idea, the character as a ‘switchboard’ for emotions and unknown parts of our soul, consciousness, unconscious…
      Part of our job as writers is to wonder about that iceberg and what the rest of it looks like.

  10. #18 by cydmadsen on October 31, 2012 - 5:05 pm

    Bless you, Roz, for bringing imagination back into the picture. I haven’t the slightest idea where any of my characters or stories come from. My daughter once pointed the TV remote at me while I was in the midst of lecturing her and said, “Can this thing turn down the volume on the lecture?” No, but it stopped the lecture cold as a story idea came to me. I took a nap, woke up, and an entire screenplay was completed in my mind. It was about a boy, his father, and the superconducting super-collider. Where that leap of imagination came from is a mystery I’ll always treasure.

    I don’t think we can completely pull from people around us, either. As “courseofmirrors” points out, what we know of them is just the tip of the iceberg. Often, we have to imagine their stories because the truth is far too disturbing.

    • #19 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 31, 2012 - 6:40 pm

      Hi Cyd! Oh yes, let’s hear it for good old imagination. A much underrated – and under-mentioned – partner for the writer.
      The whole reason I enjoyed science at school was because of the ideas it gave me for stories. For physics O level we had a text book the size of a breeze block which we only dipped into occasionally – I read it cover to cover for the fun of the ideas. Funny you should mention colliders – I re-read that section several times.
      Did your collider screenplay ever get made?

      And icebergs and people…. I’m sure many of the people I know fascinate me because of their fictional possibilities. The real versions would not be pleased to know where some of those conjectures take me.

  11. #20 by cantrelljason on November 4, 2012 - 10:00 pm

    When I think, “Write what you know,” I look at it as, “Write like what you read.” This doesn’t necessarily mean imitation, but rather that you should write in a style you understand and have familiarity with. If you never read mystery novels, you won’t know the techniques and styles that work to make a GOOD mystery. In my personal case, I read lots of Sci Fi and Fantasy, and that’s also what I write. In some cases, I gain specific inspiration from what I read. In other cases, I’m just absorbing and learning as much as I can about the styles people use. This is a form of education, and education makes for better writers.

    Another point is that “what you know” isn’t necessarily what you are personally skilled at. Instead, it can be what you love and follow. You don’t have to actually know how to play a musical instrument to be a music lover. You can still study it, be passionate about it, and learn to describe the sound and emotion behind it. Or in my case, I’m a fan of blacksmithing, and study it in great detail, but I’ve never actually set hammer to anvil. “Knowing” something isn’t necessarily the same as “doing” it. That’s why people write and why they read: to explore things you might not be able to experience firsthand, but which you still enjoy.

    Also, just to clue you in on how big of a Sci Fi Geek I am, when I read Merita’s comment above, “I have a life going on inside my head; a life where I can put right what went wrong all those years ago,” that just made me think of Quantum Leap, where Dr. Sam Beckett was leaping from life to life, putting right what once went wrong…

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