Should You Always Write What You Know?

Many professional authors will advise that we should “Write what you know.” It is important for authenticity and grounding readers in our stories. It also helps us to stick to information, situations, and locations that are familiar.

Writing only what I know can be a huge challenge for me. I have never met a dragon—though it is a dream of mine. I have never traveled to a distant planet. And I don’t have any neighbors who are fairies or elves. Yes, I am a fantasy writer. Other times I write historical fiction, but—again—this is a problem. I have never lived in the Middle Ages. There are some advantages to having access to primary sources for research and a lot of other history buffs out there who have synthesized the research for me. But even with all I can read and research, would it be considered writing what I know?

I wrote a sequel to my first publication during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It’s a story about a spy tracking a kidnapped woman. She ends up running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Never been kidnapped. Never been in Spain. So does this mean I can’t write about these things? Perhaps it’s time to book a trip to Spain.

Recently, I sat around a table talking writing with a group of friends and I heard something that put a new light on our writing. “Write what you are passionate about. And do your research.” I am definitely passionate about my fantasy worlds. I love creating creatures and locations that are inspired by my experiences, but it’s like nothing I know. I have books on dragons, swords, and a shelf full of volumes about the Middle Ages in Europe. Lately, I have spent a lot of time on YouTube watching others run with the bulls, and on Google Maps strolling down the streets of several cities in Spain trying to find new locations for my characters to see and experience.

What if neither of those ideas is completely correct. Could it be that writers need to do both? We have to love what we write about. For if there is no joy in the writer there is no interest in the reader. We still need to know our facts no matter the topic of the writing. I’ve heard more than one author say that a reader found something in their story and took issue with its inaccuracy.

Whether we write, fantasy to women’s fiction, historical fiction to literary non-fiction, or any other combination, we can all include the human experience. We know how it feels to fall in love, be betrayed, or win the prize. Emotions are universal and can reach our readers whether they experience them through the life of a dragon, or a knight, or a kidnapped teacher.

This is truly where our stories come to life—in the lives of the characters. The world they live in and the technology they have access to can add layers. But when all is said and done, people want to cheer on the hero, celebrate when the villain gets his just punishment, and each of us want to know that we are not alone. There are others out there that feel just like we do.

So, dear writer here is your mission—should you choose to accept it. Find your passion. Spend time in quality research. And write what you know of being a person who is surrounded by a world of hurting people.

Michelle Janene Murray— has served as a critique group leader for both adults and students for the last decade. She loves to help writers to the next level of their writing career. She served for seven years as the head of the editing team for the annual anthology produced by Inspire Christian Writers. As the founder of Strong Tower Press, she aids writers to become authors. As an indie author, Michelle has published nine novels. A lover of God, a prolific writer, encouraging coach, Michelle loves to serve the Christian writing community.

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6 thoughts on “Should You Always Write What You Know?”

  1. Excellent article, Michelle. I heard this many times and, well, I guess I’ve said it to authors. You’re right on the mark. When I wrote Night of the Cossack I only new a few small facts about my grandfather. I spent many, many hours researching things I didn’t know but the unknown became the known by the time I wrote the novel. It’s a tricky twist.

  2. Margaret Welwood

    As someone with almost no knowledge of business or heavy industry, I edited a business magazine that focused on oil and gas, forestry, and construction. The important things for me were to consult with people who knew what they were talking about, check back as often as needed to make sure I was quoting/interpreting them correctly, and proofread painstakingly. It was fun and very satisfying, and the people we interviewed were happy with the coverage.

  3. Michelle Janene

    Margaret, that is an excellent point. Experts are a great resource and most love that you took the time to really listen to them. I spend a lot of my time at renaissance fairs talking with the different weapons experts. Thank you for your comment.

  4. Brilliant insights Michelle. Seems you’ve hit on the head an issue which touches us all and come up with a workable conclusion: write what we care about and research what you don’t already know by personal experience.
    Every blessing.

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