Write What You Know–But What Does That Mean?

The other day, I was brainstorming with a friend over a story I was stuck on. I didn’t like the original idea I’d come up with and I wanted something new. In the process of doing this (which worked out very well) I mentioned that I would like to set the story in a small town, because I spent most of my life in a small town and it’s easy to write. That got me thinking about something.

Specifically, that age-old writer’s adage that you’ve probably heard a thousand times:

Write what you know.

The thing about ‘write what you know’ is that it’s a much more complex piece of advice than it seems on the surface, and some writers might not really understand what it means at all. How can you take advice that doesn’t even make sense to you?

Taken at face value, ‘write what you know’ sounds like you should never write about places you’ve never visited, jobs you’ve never had, and skills you’ve never acquired. But we know this isn’t true. You can do research, there’s a lot of information out there, and you can write faithfully about things you don’t ‘know.’ I’m going to break this piece of advice down into two simpler parts: write what you love, and write what’s easy.

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, you know that a disproportionate amount of his books are set in Maine (where he lives) with protagonists who are either writers or teachers (which he was). This doesn’t mean he doesn’t write about other places and professions. But he loves Maine, and of course, he loves writing.

A disproportionate amount of my work is set in Chicago or references it because I love Chicago. I don’t live there, I never have. I’ve visited it many times but not enough to say I ‘know’ Chicago like someone who was born and grew up there. But I love it, and putting in the research to write about it is a delight. When you love what you’re writing about it comes through the words.

On the other hand, writing what you know can also mean writing what’s easy. I grew up in a small town and spent a good portion of my adult life there, so I understand the dynamics of a small town. Therefore, if I want to focus on the characters and not have to put any effort into the background or world building, I set it in a small town, because the backdrop comes easy to me. Likewise, I have characters who are bartenders and servers because I’ve worked in bars and restaurants for nearly a decade and I don’t have to think about their job. Their profession is easy to write about and I don’t have to put any extra work in, if I want to focus more tightly on other aspects of the story.

So ‘write what you know’ can also mean write what you love, and write what’s easy. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever write about places and professions that are completely exotic to you–as I said, there is a wealth of information out there, and it’s always fun to learn something new anyway.

Write what you know can mean a lot of things. What does it mean to you?

Author: Megan Morgan

Paranormal and contemporary romance author.

12 thoughts

  1. To me, “write what you know” means “write what is authentic.” And that depends on the genre I’m writing. If I’m writing contemporary YA, I set my stories in a small town because I don’t have an authentic viewpoint on what it’s like to grow up in the city. But if I’m writing spec fic, I’ll set the story wherever it needs to be because it’s not 100% based on reality and I have some leeway with what feels true. I could do a ton of research and write a contemporary story in a different setting, but right now as I’m still learning the craft, it is – like you said – easier to make the setting something I know and concentrate on the plot. So, this long comment is all to say that I agree with you. 😉


  2. I love doing research about new places and things so I can write about them, often so much more than actually do the whole writing thing! which also explains why one of my novels are still in the planning stage. Definitely write what you love – you can always learn the ‘know’ part


  3. This is very nicely put. I think I especially agree with theinterpretation, write what you love, because if you love your subject and your characters and your story, it will be no effort researching even if you don’t know a lot about it at the begining.


  4. To me, it (partly) means recognizing the humanity in the characters (even if the characters are aliens or critters). I know what it likes to be afraid, to love, to want; if I were THIS character in THIS situation at THIS time, how would I feel and how would I act or react? By using what I KNOW in writing a place/time/person I know only through research or invention, I inhabit the fiction and, I hope, the reader will, too.


    1. Yes! That’s a very good way to describe ‘write what you know.’ We all share the human experience and giving that to our characters (even if they’re not human) is the fastest way to connect with readers.

      Liked by 1 person

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