Jun 27, 2007

Write What You Know Not

by Faith St. Clair

By nature I am quiet with few words to offer, no exotic life experiences to note, I have a desk job, a regular abnormal family and a simple mind. I do know I have a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but that is more by faith than scriptural mastery. I know about changing diapers, being a taxi and worrying about young adult children. I know how to spatula 100 pounds on my hips without thinking, I know how to how to commence a mid-life crisis, I know theatre and the arts and I know that I don’t bond well with horizontal vertebrae (animals). I know the world is a scary place, but I also know it is an amazing adventure.

We are often told as writers to write what we know. What exactly does that mean? If something is fiction, then isn’t it make-believe? Do I need to have experienced something in order to write it with enough expertise in order for the reader to believe it? What if I’ve never been a vampire, a pilgrim, a dinosaur, a monk, a zoo keeper, a baseball player, a dog, an intergalactic ship captain, a ninja, a wizard or a hat-wearing cat? Does that mean I can’t write about it? I question that theory and implore other writers to chime in with their thoughts on this (whether they think they know something about it or not).

I am writing a book wherein my character is not my age, race or sex. He lives in a place that I have only driven through in a time period that I can only imagine. None of the other characters or antagonists remotely resembles anybody that I am acquainted with or that I associate with. My character has talents that I could hardly dream of and life hurdles that I would never want to have to jump. Although I feel compelled to tell the story, should I not be writing this book?

If I stick to just what I know, then I am writing about a walrus, pew-sitting, neurotic mother who enjoys “Cats” but only on stage. Somehow that doesn’t seem to make for a very exciting book series.

I know of a Caucasian young man who is writing a musical theatre piece on the Civil war. He drips with musical talent, but somehow there is no way a guy that looks like him, should be writing African American spirituals with complexity like that.

My point is that I think (I just think – I don’t KNOW), sometimes we are inspired to write things that are beyond our realms. Sometimes there is a higher power with a higher purpose for putting a pen in our hands and words in our heads.

I just wish those moments of purpose would come more frequently.


  1. Woo Hoo! Yay! And it's so nice to hear someone else who likes to write what we don't know. I wrote a novel set in Book of Mormon time during Alma the Elder's adventures. All I really know about that time is what I read from the scriptures and what I can glean from researching that time period from outside sources. But I feel compelled to tell the story of my main character who observed Abinadi's death and had a life changing moment from that experience. Write what the spirit directs and it will be what you "know".

  2. Faith,

    You should absolutely be writing that book! After years of writing fiction about the Middle Ages, I've become convinced that "Write what you know" is too often confused with "Write what you've experienced". If I limited myself to that advice, I'd never write about anything but sunny, modern-day Arizona. Now, I'm a died-in-the-wool (or should that be, fur?) desert rat and wouldn't give up my 21st Century luxuries for anything. This is my experience. But I can KNOW about many other things than single life in modern Arizona. I can KNOW about medieval knights, medieval ladies, medieval castles, medieval manors, medieval serfs, medieval politics, medieval dress, medieval food...obviously the list can go on and on. That's what we call "research", and research leads to "knowledge". And, when writing fiction, IMAGINATION is also absolutely necessary. (Especially when writing about intergalactic ship captains. ;-) )

    So by all means, write beyond your personal experiences to what you KNOW by whatever means you go about gaining that knowledge.

  3. You may not know about other places, other times, but I'll bet you know human nature, and any good book simply holds a mirror up so we can see ourselves. Research can put you in another time and place and skin...and the creative process can make it real. It's funny, but when you're 'in the zone' and it's pouring out of you, it is real, and later on, you'll read it and wonder how you could have written that, because you don't even remember ever having known all the things you write about. It gets a bit spooky, but, to me, it's an evidence of the workings of faith.

  4. My dearest Faith! You have such a gift! I love the way you use your words...except when you degrade yourself...although I do admit to laughing at your descriptions... they are just so easy to identify with! I have always questioned the whole write what you know thing. Thank you for your insight!


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