Sunday, August 19, 2018

How to Write What You Know Without Writing Nonfiction

“Write what you know.” This phrase has inspired and haunted writers all at the same time. It’s limiting, yet it helps us work within our experience.

I’ve heard it said that writers who finally wrote what they knew finally knew what it meant to write. At first, I didn’t get it. I tried to write what I knew, but it all sounded like a boring journal entry that was actually worse than my actual journal entries. I usually quit about 1,000 words in, assuming I made it that far. I tried writing a story about transitions and having no friends. Depressing. A story about a dinner party. No plot. A story about living in Hawaii. Too many scattered ideas.

Perhaps that was part of my problem, I started with a concept without a plot or a character without a definitive goal. Whatever the reason, I thought I couldn’t write about my own experiences no matter how I tried.

Until I wrote Origami Swan.

Believe it or not, the initial idea for Origami Swan came from a movie (The Labyrinth) and way too many unrelated emotions. I was just finishing up my master’s degree and had no idea what I was going to do next. Then I started thinking. What if life had a maze for those who didn’t know what they were doing next? What if “life’s choices” wasn’t just a hallway with an open door indicating “THIS IS IT! Go this way!” but rather a series of puzzles that each person has to figure out on their own. Thus, the Labyrinthe de Napoléon was born.

As I think about my own stories and adding what I know, here are just a few things I’ve learned along the way:

Write in the genre you know.

Part of my problem in trying to write what I know was that I was trying to write nonfiction without reading any nonfiction. I didn’t know where to start. I had no plot. How do I add a plot to my own life?

In a sense, I was writing what I didn’t know. I didn’t know nonfiction. I’m trying to read more in this broad genre, but I haven’t yet made it into the realm of memoirs or autobiographies. Maybe I’ll get there one day.

Truth is, I’m more of a fantasy and sci-fi reader. It makes sense that I’d be more of a fantasy and sci-fi writer. I know how the genres work. Give me dragons and spaceships and explosions and intrigue and I’m one happy reader.

That’s not to say you can’t write in a genre you aren’t terribly familiar with. I grew up reading far more fantasy than sci-fi. If anything, the genre is more of a recent addition to my favorites. I’ve had to read a ton of sci-fi novels to catch up with those who were already major sci-fi fans, and I’ll probably have to read even more before I attempt to write another sci-fi novel. (I did try to write one already, but it was terrible. I’m setting that thing on fire.)

It’s okay that if have to do more research if you want to learn about another genre. If you want to write a fantasy novel, read more fantasy novels. If you think the idea of writing a romance novel is fun, read more romance. Reading is awesome! So go for it.

Draw from your own emotions/experiences and research facts.

When you draw from personal experience or emotions, you’re adding something to the story that research cannot possibly provide you. While you can search for a city on Google maps, the internet may not be able to tell you whether or not the local ducks like to sit in the street during rush hour until the cars honk at them. And while research may be able to tell you some of the cultural differences, it cannot tell you how the American Midwest smells different from the South.

No matter how familiar you are with a certain topic, you should still do some research. If I’m going to draw from a setting I’ve lived in, I still have to research it. Especially since I like to write about places I have been instead of wherever I’m currently living. After all, it’s not like I know all the types of trees or birds I want to include, or maybe I spent too much time in Europe and accidentally added a roundabout to an American town. Even if you’re writing about the place you live, research can help give you information that you might see as normal but somebody else might see as unusual, like roundabouts.

Whatever the type of story you’re writing, just remember to do your research. It might not all play into the story, but it helps immensely.

Add what you know as you go along.

Calm down, plotters. You can add this kind of information to your outline. What I mean: don’t start with writing what you know. Start with what you want to write. If you want to write about time travel, start with that. Then you can add your knowledge of jet lag or communicable diseases or foreign language along the way. If what you want to write just happens to be what you know, then great! For example, if you are a time traveler who wants to write about your experiences, then congratulations. *whispers* Tell me your secrets.

Write what you know, but don’t stop there.

Keep learning. Expand upon what you know. Like I mentioned above, experience can only get you so far. Each person has their own perspective, but unless you want all your characters to sound the same, you’ll have to branch out. Learn something new.

Of course, many “writing rules” are more like guidelines. If you happen to write nonfiction and it turns out great, then well done. What works for one writer may not work for another. Play with it. Most of all, have fun!

Let’s chat! How much of what you know do you put in your stories? Have you ever tried your hand at nonfiction? What genre do you like to write?



  1. I agree with this post so hard. While in university, one of my units required me to write creative non-fiction, like memoir. I had never written anything like that, and I definitely didn't read the genre, so even though I was a decent writer, I struggled. Ask me to write the opening to a detective novel though, and I was off. I feel like most people's idea of what 'write what you know' is limited to life experience instead of to things like, as you said, book genres, emotions, and the like. I once read a quote from a writer that said something like (and this is badly remembered) by the time you're a teenager, you already know everything you need to write a book. We know a lot more about people and relationships and human emotions than we think we do. I feel like we can learn a lot of the rest, through reading and research and all that. But the heart of the story comes from our humanness, and everyone knows something about that. I don't know. Just something I've been thinking about a little.

    1. I wonder if the way we struggle with writing non-fiction is the way some people struggle with fiction. Hmmm. That's a good point about the estimate of when writers know what they need to know to write a book. Nice food for thought. Thanks for the comment!