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Writing What You Know, by Kate Gordon

“Write what you know”.

It’s a maxim handed down to every beginning writer, from (usually well-meaning) instructors who think that it will make the hurdle of starting a manuscript easier to leap across. After all, how hard can it be, writing stuff that’s already happened? Stuff you know? Stuff that’s already inside your head – that you don’t have to make up?

Trouble is, if all of us writer just wrote what we knew my gosh the world would be filled with some pretty darn boring books!

Imagine if JRR Tolkien had just written about life in early 20th century Birmingham, instead of about orcs and hobbits and elves living in Middle Earth!

Imagine if JK Rowling had written an autobiography about being a single mum in Clapham Junction, or if Suzanne Collins had written a story about a young daughter of an Air Force pilot, growing up in Connecticut?

They’re all hugely talented writers, of course, so their stories would still, in all probability, be entertaining.

But they wouldn’t be The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.

Still, giving a beginning writer the goal of writing the next LOTR or Harry Potter might be a bit of a tough ask. Sure, some super talented kids would find it a walk in the park but most (including myself), need a little security blanket to cling to when stepping into the wide and woolly world of a first novel.

So that’s why I always tell writers in the workshops I conduct:

Write what you know … but then add some crazy stuff to it.

Use your memories. Use people you’ve met. Use familiar landscapes or childhood haunts or snippets you’ve overheard on the bus …

But then chuck in a vampire.

Or shift the action to 1960’s Paris.

Or start the book in your childhood but then make a huge asteroid (or similar bringer of the apocalypse) come hurtling towards your hometown!

Or, I don’t know, pop a few were-thylacines on Mount Wellington …

The best books, I think, are the ones that are grounded in reality but incorporate some far-out elements. And those elements don’t have to be were-things! Take a person you met when you were a kid and put them in a hostage situation (this can be fun if you didn’t particularly like the person – revenge where nobody gets hurt and you get a novel out of it). Take a childhood memory and imagine that it actually happened in the future, and have a robot walk in.

Write what you know, and then mess with it! Have fun! Take the world you know and shake it up!

Writing is the one profession where you really do get to play God. You can create lands and destroy them. You can decide if people live or die. You can invent whole new species. You can make the world blow up or have it rain kangaroos!

Sure, JRR and JK might have based some of their novels on what they knew – JK has admitted Hermione is based on herself – but then they used their marvellous imaginations to add to what they knew and make it extraordinary!

Write what you know.

But make it better!


Kate Gordon author website:

Three Things About Daisy Blue (Girlfriend Fiction)ThylaVulpiHarry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneThe Hunger Games Tribute Guide (Hunger Games Trilogy)The Hobbit: Graphic NovelTolkien: A Biography

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ludmila Antonoff #

    Excellent advice. I thank you for this insight.

    March 18, 2012
  2. This is wonderful advice. In my early days of being a serious writer (albeit when I wasn’t yet the most mature or professional writer), when I was a preteen and in my early teens, my mother was always harping at me to “write what you know” instead of letting my imagination run wild. I always found that “advice” very limiting, and continued to write historical fiction and have storylines and characters not based on anything I’d ever experienced.

    Now that I’m older, I can understand on some level that it makes sense to have a base of writing what you know. For example, if you haven’t experienced something like birth, marriage, or college, your depictions of those things might not be the most accurate, and doing a lot of research into them can only go so far. But as far as storylines and characters, you should use your imagination.

    March 21, 2012

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