Thursday, May 28, 2015

Know What You Write

by Henry McLaughlin @RiverbendSagas

Many of us have heard the statement, “Write what you know” so often it has become a cliché.

It intimidated me the first time I heard. Write what I know? I don’t know all that much that would make a good story. To me, my life was the opposite of Hitchcock’s definition of a movie: life with the dull parts taken out. Mine had all the dull parts left in.

 I’d had some traumatic and horrific experiences, like the death of a son. Fighting the siren song of alcohol. Making decisions in my work in public child welfare that would change a child’s life forever. All were—and many still are—too close, the emotions too raw.

Besides, I wanted to write what I enjoy: stories with mystery and suspense in unique story worlds.

Then the revelation came: Know What I Write.

When I had the idea for my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, I knew it would be either Science Fiction or a Western. The novel needed a significant amount of time to pass where the characters would be out of communication. These two genres were the best fit.

And, because they were two of my most favorite genres to read, I had a head start and was into that second cliché of writing: Read what you write. Study your genre, see what the expectations are, learn how story worlds are built and populated.

I also needed to know how to write: Studying the craft came next. Books, magazines, workshops, conferences. The Christian Writers Guild courses of Apprentice, Journeyman, and Craftsman. Being led to a generous mentor, finding critique partners and groups.

Knowing what I write also means research. For Journey to Riverbend, this meant digging into weapons, stagecoaches, trains, the economy, and religion. Being a history major in college, the research methods were still there. Just a tad rusty but a little mental WD-40 and they came back. And so much easier with the Internet.

Write what you know is still excellent advice. Those true life stories I mentioned earlier do come out in my writing. Digging into my own experiences helps me discover those emotions and conflicts I want to place in my characters. What fear feels like to me helps me show it in my characters.

Any feeling we ever experience is still in us, in our memory, ready to help develop real and complex characters. Pull it out, make it worse for our character and put it in the book.

Knowing what you write is equally valuable in making what you know a meaningful experience for your reader.
What are some techniques you’ve discovered to help you know what you write?

How do you use what you know to improve your story telling? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Don't stop with write what you know, KNOW what you write - Henry McLaughlin @RiverbendSagas (Click to Tweet)

Turn "Write what you know" upside down with Henry McLaughlin, @Riverbendsagas on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Henry’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest. He serves as Associate Director of North Texas Christian Writers. Henry edits novels, leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers. Connect with Henry on his blogTwitter and Facebook.


  1. Great post. I also had a sick feeling in my gut when I first heard, "Write what you know". I mainly write non fiction, Christian living. After studying the Bible for 25 years I feel like I have only scratched the surface of understanding it, I often say to myself, "How dare you write about Scripture if you don't have a complete grasp of all the treasures it holds?" The Lord reminds me that no one has a complete grasp of it. I know how the scriptures have changed my life; that is what I write about. The Flash Fiction that I write draws from past memories. The real, raw, gut wrenching feelings. It is not easy but I have found healing in writing.

    1. Thank you, Cherrilynn. I've found my past memoirs help flesh out my fiction. In that sense, I write what I know. Learning how to express those memories through my characters is where I learned to know what I write.

  2. I'm enough of a rebel to have ignored that. lol I figured what I didn't know, I could learn. And that's half the fun! Great post, Henry!

  3. What an excellent post!

    I, too, have always been intimidated by the "write what you know" maxim. What do I know that would possibly interest anyone outside those fields? How could it possibly be turned into fiction.

    As far as my own life, boring, boring, boring. Who'd be interested in that?

    But know what you write.... I can sink my literary teeth into that!

    Thanks for the tip!

  4. Thanks, Carrie Lynn. I'm grateful you enjoyed the post.

  5. Terrific post! Yes, I agree that there are parts of life I don't want to write about. But as I venture into writing contemporary romance set in the Iraq war, I know I need to learn much about weaponry, military jargon, etc. It will be a challenge yet fun! That's why I love writing.

  6. Thank you, Ruth. When I started writing seriously, I rediscovered the joys of researching and learning.