Thursday, May 24, 2018

Is 'Write What You Know' Really Good Advice?

by Henry McLaughlin @RiverBendSagas

“Write what you know” is a piece of advice that just about every aspiring writer has heard. At first glance, it sounds really wise and profound. Until we try to apply it.  If we adhered to this maxim, very little would get written that would be worth reading. Because, when we get right down to it, we don’t know very much.

A much better way to put it is to know what you write, but even this doesn’t go far enough.

What I’ve learned over my writing career is to write what I’m passionate about. Write what I’m curious about.

My dream job since I was a kid was to be a professional baseball player. What’s yours? Write a novel or short story where your main character has that dream job or where it’s the job they want but can’t get. 

We can incorporate items from our bucket lists into our stories. Maybe it’s something our heroine has never done before, but now she must if she is to save the day. Or it could be a skill she already possesses, but she is reluctant to use it. Why? That’s a plot line worth exploring.

My bucket list includes skiing and scuba diving. I’ve never done either. Yet. If I give them to my main character, I’ll have to learn more about it.

Skydiving, rock climbing, and mountain climbing are other possibilities.

Is there a part of the world you find fascinating? When we set our stories in such places, we need to learn about them to make the story world realistic and believable.

All this requires research. A lot of the information is available on line and in books. Go beyond this. Talk to experts and to people who have done it. Do some walking research—visit the site or take a class. In one of my yet-to-be published works, my characters use a bow and arrow. I took classes. I not only wanted to get it right in my book, I wanted to experience the emotion of actually doing it.

What are you passionate about but have hesitated to write about?

Is 'Write What You Know' Really Good Advice? - Henry McLaughlin @RiverBendSagas on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Write what you're curious about - good advice for a writer from 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 advice Mr. Henry. We're never wrong when we follow our passions. Assuming of course, our passions are led by the right source. Have a good 'un sir.

  2. Henry - I always enjoy reading your posts, and especially enjoyed this one. You do in your posts what I believe a good book does: makes the reader think. I've always wanted to live in the mountains; but, alas, it looks like I never will. But I now use mountains, mountain culture, and mountain relationships to learn from, research, visit, etc. I've even called sheriffs of 2 counties and interviewed firemen in the very setting of the fictitious setting in my book. So, I echo what you've said here. My protagonist is going to be able to live and work where I can't and it is a true joy to get slices of my passion in this form as I can. And guess where we take vacations now? The linking of a goal and a passion give me SO much more to write about. And, to your point, it certainly isn't because of what I KNEW before.
    Jay Wright
    Anderson, SC

    1. Thanks, Jay. I really appreciate your comments. In one of my contemporary stories I interviewed officers in several jurisdictions. Made a field trip to Abilene, KS for one of my Westerns. And I had a blast researching sword-fighting, horses, and castles for my fantasy series.

  3. I love the wisdom of your post, Henry.
    Write what I am curious about is my purpose. It also makes the writing feel authentic.
    I am passionate about tennis and space exploration. I guess there is a story somewhere there.

    1. How about a tennis match on the moon? Venus Williams vs John McEnroe? Imagine the dimensions of the court.

  4. This is an excellent post that offers an essential paradigm shift if we are to write fiction. I've never subscribed to the dictum to write what I know--or, I should say, to write ONLY what I know. As you wisely said, Mr. McLaughlin, "We don't know very much." :) For me, part of the excitement of writing fiction is to learn what I need to know to create the best story I can create. One of my favorite things to do is to travel to the setting of my story. I call it "real-life immersion for the sake of fiction." Thank you so much for your very insightful post!

    1. Thank you, MaryAnn. One of my favorite authors is mystery writer Elizabeth George. Write Away is her book on the craft. In it, she describes her trips to England where her novels are set and how she explores the land, taking pictures of places she will fictionally incorporate into he stories. This reality anchored in fiction makes her mysteries very real and very enjoyable.

  5. Henry, I'm late to the party I guess, but I absolutely love this post. I have been fascinated by the Depression era, WWII, and historical settings. What you are saying is so true about being passionate and writing about it. I will never learn to fly. I have done so much research into flight, airplanes, and how the early ones were made, etc. Trains are another fascination for me, and the early railroads...all has been exciting. Fuel for one of my other interests--research. I can chase rabbits with the best of them...great post. Donevy