Writing Advice: Write What You Know

“Write what you know.” I’ve heard this attributed to Mark Twain but I’m not sure if this is accurately attributed. If you know more about who first said this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments or email me! The librarian in my is very concerned with giving attribution to the correct people!

Many people get frustrated by this piece of advice. I was one of them because I’m a fantasy/sci-fi writer. How can one know about a creature that doesn’t really exist…dragons, unicorns (although maybe they are real, but really good at hiding), and trolls (these do actually appear on the internet all the time, just not in the literal form that I write.) I have a friend that writes about an ICU nurse who turns into an amateur sleuth. As far as I know, she’s never investigated an ACTUAL murder, although she was an ICU nurse. You get the idea right?

So what does this really mean?

Well, write what you know. You know about relationships. You know about love, heartache, disappointment, joy, and anger. You know how it feels to be stabbed in the back by a friend (figuratively I hope not literally). You know the bitter disappointment of not getting that dream job or being rejected by a boy or girl.

You know about life. Write about that.
The setting is up to you.

Draw upon the losses you have felt in your life to write about the losses in your character’s life. I recently wrote a story about grief after a horrible accident. So, I drew on how I felt when my aunt and cousin were killed in an airplane crash (Valuejet). I remember my thoughts as I talked on the the cordless phone outside my apartment. I remember the feel of the volleyball court sand between my toes as my dad told me that his twin sister was on that plane that crashed. I walked in circles in the sand processing this loss and crying for my loss, my dad’s loss, my uncle’s loss.

The thoughts of my character echoed my own thoughts on the day that happened. I channeled that pain into an alien on some unknown planet and gave her a heart with feelings, deep and visceral. I gave it to my writing group friends to read and one of them cried because it reminded her of a loss that she experienced. That is what writing does when done well. It connects us all. We have all felt loss and can relate to one another and feel sympathy for that imaginary character that embodies those emotions.

When I was young I wrote 150 pages of a manuscript and got stuck. My character fell in love. I had never been in love before, not really, so I couldn’t write it. I stopped writing for 10 years. Since then I fell in love and had a family. I could go back and write it now, but I’ve grown since then and would basically have to start all over. I wish I had simply started another project instead, but there were other issues. That is a story for another day though.

Do your research!

Another aspect of this is the research aspect. None of us have lived in the 1500s but there are books set in that time period. Any good book written about that time period has an author who did their homework. Don’t just read one book about that time period and assume you are an expert. Read a dozen books about that time period.


For my high fantasy lovers this book and series by Joseph and Frances Gies is excellent research material. Reading this will give you a better understanding of the time and day to day life of the peasants, knights, and nobles of the day. It will help you include details that will make your story come alive!

Nobody knows about dragons, but we know about lizards. Could you research lizards and imbue your dragon with lizard qualities? Or bird qualities? Absolutely!

So, write what you know. The characters, the place, the time, the theme, is all up to you. So put dragons in there! Unicorns! Aliens! Write about Russia 1850s, America 1920s, BUT make sure you do your research first!

One thought on “Writing Advice: Write What You Know

  1. Excellent post! Yes, I’m one of those writers who *hates* to hear that phrase… Write what you know. But I will agree that the best of us uses exactly that – what we know – to draw our readers deeply into the story, to have them engage with the characters, and to have them want to know what happens next.


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