Write What You Know ~ I Don’t Think So!

Posted on Mar 6, 2014 by   26 Comments | Posted in Blog · Uncategorized

by Deborah O’Neill Cordes

 Write what you know.  It’s said to be sage advice from the venerable author Mark Twain, but the provenance can’t be verified.  Whether he actually said it or not, does the quote have merit?  How would it be possible to write about the fantastic or paranormal if authors strictly adhered to this old truism?

Or are people misinterpreting what the phrase actually means?

I have a friend, a fellow author, who chooses to write about small town America, because that’s where she grew up and it’s what she knows.  She never considered writing about anything else, yet she emphasized it was her personal choice, and advised me to seek my own comfort level when choosing genres.  According to her, the key isn’t to writing about the places and things familiar to you, but the memories of the emotions you’ve experienced in life and your observations of – and compassion for – others.

And she’s correct.  As an author of time travel fiction, I’ve embarked upon mind journeys to some fantastical and distant time periods, eras and places impossible to visit, or wholly conjured by my mind: ancient Rome, the near future on Mars, the empire of Genghis Khan, Elizabethan England, and even an alternate universe where dinosaurian creatures have evolved to intelligence.  And while research about these faraway realms provided the framework for my tales, my personal experiences have given them sparks of life, whether coming from the grief I felt when my dog died in my arms, later reimagined in a scene depicting the death of the infant son of a Roman princess, to the wonder I experienced when visiting the slopes of a Hawaiian volcano, reworked into the awe felt by astronauts standing before Mars’ vast Olympus Mons.


Write what you know – I don’t think so.  The title of this piece refers to the mistaken notion that we, as authors, should never stretch our minds to the limits and imagine the impossible.  Consider novels and screenplays like Star Trek in all of its incarnations, H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the tales of Narnia and Middle Earth, Harry Potter, and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.  They’re loved by millions, and why?  Because they were written by authors who understood the true meaning of “write what you know,” who’ve gripped their readers with their passions, foibles, tragedies, and triumphs, brought to life by their mighty pens and fearless imaginations.


My author friend recently shared something interesting with me; she may attempt writing in a new setting, even a different genre, far away from her small town comforts.  I say more power to her.  Lady, reach for the stars!  But there are no rights or wrongs here.  On the contrary, we must follow our hearts and stay true to what works for us.  Observe the world, grasp your emotions and hold them tight, and then tuck the memories away, to be used in your writing.  And no matter how original or fantastic your fictional worlds become, they will have emerged from your soul and be… truly… what you know.



26 Responses to "Write What You Know ~ I Don’t Think So!"

  1. Comment by Cathryn Cade
    March 6, 2014 8:28 am


    I agree we must begin writing from a place we do know–human nature.

    But from there on, with sfr and fantasy, the fun is in the discovery of inner worlds we’ve never visited, and all the joy and terror of ‘What might it be like?’ not, ‘What is it like?’

    Cathryn Cade

    • Comment by Deborah O'Neill Cordes
      March 6, 2014 11:24 am

      Cathryn, thank you for inviting me to post on this wonderful blog. I agree with you wholeheartedly; visiting our inner worlds is amazing. I enjoy that part of writing so much.

  2. Comment by Lynn Crandall
    March 6, 2014 2:14 pm

    Very nice post! Spot on!

  3. Comment by Nancy C Weeks
    March 6, 2014 4:25 pm

    Great post! Write what you know… as a romance suspense writer, that would be incredibly dangerous. I never want to know what a sniper bullet flying pass my ear feels like or a building exploding around me. I like to think the emotion and compassion in my stories comes from my heart though.

    • Comment by Deborah Cordes
      March 8, 2014 12:29 pm

      Nancy, I agree! You would never want to experience some of the awful things we write about. I just worked on a scene in my WIP, where a bomb blast hits a street in 1945 London during the Blitz. I pulled memories of tripping and falling down (and hitting my head), to a remembrance of the Normandy scene in Saving Private Ryan, where Tom Hanks’s character goes temporarily deaf after a mortar hits nearby. My motto is ‘whatever works’ to get your character into the action.

  4. Comment by Deborah Cordes
    March 6, 2014 4:34 pm

    Thanks for your kind words, mmarvellab and Lynn!

  5. Comment by Brenna Chase
    March 6, 2014 11:16 pm

    Very nice post, Deborah! I agree; experiences and knowledge are good bases, but imagination really serves a writer well.

    • Comment by Deborah Cordes
      March 8, 2014 12:32 pm

      Brenna, since I’ve started writing, I have a deeper appreciation of the imaginations of my fellow authors. It gives me a thrill to say, “How in the world did she come up with that?” 🙂

  6. Comment by joanna lloyd
    March 7, 2014 1:51 am

    There are very few of us who have had a life so thrilling, desperate or adventurous that it would keep a reader riveted for 200 to 300 pages so writing what you know would probably bore a reader to tears. But writing what the imagination can conjure with no limitations is, I think, why we pick up a book. I love what your friends said, Deborah, that we write from the memory of our emotions and translate that into events in our stories.

    • Comment by Deborah Cordes
      March 8, 2014 12:34 pm

      Joanna, you are right! I spend most of my time in front of my computer (or chasing after my terriers). If I wrote about that, it would be snooze time. lol Thanks so much for your kind words and support.

  7. Comment by Debra Elise
    March 7, 2014 10:16 am

    Deborah, really enjoyed this blog. I write paranormal and definitely don’t write what I know. I agree that drawing on human nature is so key to making my non-human characters believable…:)

    • Comment by Deborah Cordes
      March 7, 2014 12:28 pm

      Thanks for your comments, Debra. I agree with you. The other day, I watched a new episode of “Through the Wormhole” with Morgan Freeman, where he and his scientist guests speculated about alien “personalities” and their concept of the divine. Evolution would probably favor aliens who were predators, giving them parallel thoughts to our species, even to the point of making them warlike (which would back up all of our sci-fi invasion scenarios). The program also tackled the concept of worshipping a god/gods, which could take similar paths to human history. It’s all fascinating stuff, which we authors can use in world building.

  8. Comment by Deborah Cordes
    March 7, 2014 12:18 pm

    Thanks so much, Lynn!

  9. Comment by Mary Hughes
    March 7, 2014 4:16 pm

    Great post! Stretching our limits…half the fun for me in writing is researching new things 🙂 Thanks for this!

    • Comment by Deborah Cordes
      March 8, 2014 12:37 pm

      Mary, I agree! Research is the most fun for me. I adore the process and I can’t imagine authors who hire it out. Research brings new ideas, which influence scenes I hadn’t anticipated writing. Thanks so much for stopping by.

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