Do You Write What You Know?

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What do you think about the old adage of writing what you know?

I was thinking about that the other day when I was out wandering around the streets. There are a lot of things I “know” that have come out in my writing. For instance, if my characters are traveling by horseback, I can easily pull from my twenty years of experience with horses. Or if my character speaks or learns a foreign language, well, I know what that’s like. Some of my settings have been places I’ve lived, too.

But I also tend to write a lot of what I don’t know. My short story, for example, is about an all-female gang in Chicago. Have I ever been in a gang? No. Did I understand the main character’s longing for something better, though? Yes.

Did I have to research? Oh most definitely.

Of course, even after researching, I’m still no expert on gang life, and I probably (surely) had to take some literary license. But well . . . that’s fiction. If you can read it and believe it’s real, then I’ve succeeded.

It’s not always easy, however, to figure out how to handle writing what I don’t know. Especially if the thing I’m writing about is the known but unknown kind of subject. I’ve run into that problem with my current novel. One of its settings is Mars. If we’re speaking honestly here, when I started writing it, the only facts I knew about Mars were those I’d learned in middle school science classes: that it’s the fourth planet from the sun, has a thin atmosphere, two (probably) accidental moons, and a red surface. Not much to go on when I’m planning on throwing a bunch of people on it, right?

Granted, not many people know what living on Mars would be like, but still . . . I’m a perfectionist, remember? Thus far I’ve done the basic research, made up the most plausible situations I can, and left bracketed notes in my draft to remind myself to go back and consider the research later. But still, the questions linger: Will my story be plausible? Will I succeed at what I set out to do? How much should I know? And how do I find the logical answers to questions that probably have no answers?


How do you handle writing what you don’t know? How do you go about your research? Do you do it before or after you draft?

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10 thoughts on “Do You Write What You Know?

    • I don’t think that’s wrong at all! If I recall correctly, you also edit while drafting, too. (As do I.) Generally I also research before/during draft. I was just reading about Mars today, actually, so that I could get to work on a scene. Knowing the facts helps me feel better about writing the fiction. 🙂

      • Me too. I drift out to spellcheck even. It turns out my iPad doesn’t know everything. Frizzen really is a word, and that’s how it’s spelled. It’s part of a flintlock mechanism for a gun. Tell us more about the Mars story. Sounds cool.

      • Oh, yes! I can’t leave a spelling error. It’d be much more distracting to leave it alone than to just take two seconds to fix it. And frizzen. Really? Wow, I learn something knew every day! That’s kind of a fun word though.

        The Mars story is a literary spec-fic/sci-fi novel, most or less. There’s a dreamscape and an AI who has learned to lie, and the story itself is an exploration of the relationship between two women: from Earth to Mars, from reality to a dream, from the past to the present. My brief summaries are generally terrible (as you can see).

      • Sounds cool to me. I like the idea that it’s two women. There always seems to be a man around to save the day, to the point where readers expect it. It adds a subtile tension all by itself.

      • Thanks. I liked the idea too–of focusing on the women. The AI identifies as male, and there’s a guy in the background of the two women’s lives, but he never takes center stage.

  1. I always do my research before hand, in the planning stages. Sometimes it’s fun to pick up tidbits I didn’t know, but also I can see if I’m going to be too overwhelmed by it all 😀

    Great post!

    • That’s a good way to do it, I think. 🙂 If anything it helps you figure out what you need to know for your novel, or at least gives you a basis, and the other stuff you can learn along the way. Thanks for your input!

  2. “How do you handle writing what you don’t know? How do you go about your research? Do you do it before or after you draft?”

    I write the emotions (and some events, adjusted for privacy and entertainment value) which I do know. I do some research during the draft, so at least I understand what I’m reading when I reread to see if it’s worth the effort to polish for publication. The more intensive research comes after the rough, if the story is interesting enough to me.

    • That sounds like a really great way to go about it. I know some people do the majority of the research before they even touch the first draft. But if I did that, I’d get overwhelmed by the amount of information available on a subject. At the moment, I’m writing what I know or what I imagine to be correct, and then I plan to go back after the draft is complete and add the rest. It’s hard not to break flow to look things up, though. (Perfectionism?) Anyway, thanks for your comment/thoughts. I love reading how other people go about it!

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