Should You Really Write What You Know?

Stressed businessman with head in hands sitting at office desk


By Raymond M. Coulombe


Okay, there should be some more here. Writing what you know is one of those truisms that everyone spouts. How exactly does that work out?

It depends what you are writing. If you are travel writer, you are going to have to travel and write about it. That’s about as straight forward as a writing gig gets.

Nothing beats direct experience. It doesn’t matter what. You could be a world traveler or a burger flipper at a fast food place. Pay attention to the human condition. Go through life aware that you are mining it for material. Observe what goes on around you. Take notes even.

There are other ways to know something. We have access to vast amounts of information about every subject imaginable. Good solid research can often be a reasonable substitute for direct experience. Lets face it, there are a lot of experiences you don’t want to have to endure to learn about them. I’d rather read about a long slow root canal than get one.

There are people who’ve been in life and death situation and used that as the basis for their writing. Direct accounts of battle or harsh survival situations always has a market. However, you don’t have to write directly about those experiences. I know I don’t. A college writing professor once asked me why I didn’t write about my experiences as a firefighter. Sure, there’s some good material there, but I like to keep my PTSD under control. Instead I disguise the experiences in a S/F or Fantasy story. That way I can use what I know, but also keep the nightmares to a minimum.

If you are writing Science Fiction, a passable knowledge of science is essential. If you violate known scientific knowledge, it better be part of a well thought out and executed plan. Mostly when that it happens it’s just a howling blooper. If you are going to write Fantasy, it doesn’t hurt to have shot a bow or had some training swinging a sword. If you main characters ride horses, you’d better know something about horses. How you get that knowledge is up to you. Learning it directly is best, but not necessary. If the experience is central to your epic tale, some direct experience sure is good to have. If it’s just part of the background, basic knowledge learned from books, video, and the Internet is sufficient.

So write what you know, but don’t be afraid to learn new things.

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