What You Know

(Previously published on my website www.lisalregan.com)

“Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.”

-Howard Nemerov (20th Century American Poet)

I have never believed in that old adage: write what you know. Or at least I think that people take it too literally. I mean if you’re a doctor then you might write a book featuring doctors or medicine. If you’re a lawyer, you might make your main character a lawyer. If you were in the military then you could write a military thriller. I don’t think this expression should be write what you know. I think it should be “use what you know”. I think write what you know is too limiting.

We’re asked pretty early on in life to curb our imaginations, to reign in our creativity, to fall in line and prepare to have our tickets punched. Go to school. Learn this stuff. Graduate. Optional: Go to college. Then get a job. Get healthcare. Get a spouse. Find a place to live. Have some kids. Put them in school. Continue cycle. Every day life for most of us is not very adventurous. It may make us happy but it isn’t always a thrill a minute. The entire entertainment industry is predicated on this fact. Television, movies, books, video games, the internet. People need an escape, a release, an outlet. People want to get caught up in something outside of their lives, even if it’s just for an hour.

I look at my daughter who is three and right now her imagination is so vivid that she can make a game, an entire universe out of a couple of plastic cups and a magic marker. She’s like the Imagination McGuyver. She is constantly making up her own words and stories, songs and characters. Her world seems so much more interesting than mine and yet, in the grand scheme of things she knows a heckuva lot less than I do. She doesn’t need television or movies or books. That’s not to say that she doesn’t spend a lot of time on all of those things but as far as play goes, she can make something out of nothing. I’m constantly astounded by how vivid her imagination is.

When you get older and that imagination is stunted and antiquated, you need a lot more stimulation.

Let’s turn write what you know around. Let’s say read what you know. You can only read what you know about. So take my life for example. My morning routine is pretty much exactly the same every day. Get up, get ready for the day. Wake the husband and child so they can get ready for the day. Try to extract as many snuggles, hugs and kisses from the child as I can. Go to work. Come home. Eat dinner. Between dinner and bedtime play with the child whilst attempting to coax from her as many hugs, kisses and snuggles as possible. Get child ready for bed, put her to bed. Read/write/watch tv for awhile. Go to sleep. Repeat.

Now look, I love my life. I do. I’m content in a way that I never really thought possible. But for the love of God, I don’t want to read about it. It’s boring. And I certainly don’t want to write about it. I mean you could read what I’ve just written or let’s take a story by Diana Gabaldon, just for an example, you could read about a woman who was a nurse in England during WWII. After the war she and her husband are staying at a Scottish bed and breakfast when she is transported back in time to the 1700s and her fate is thrown together with the fate of a Scottish Highlander who she quickly falls for. Now really, which story is more interesting?

Fiction should not be about what you know. Fiction should be about what you want to know, what you imagine, what interests you, about the questions you have. Fiction should take you on wild adventures to places and with people you will never meet in real life. Fiction should let you enter a dangerous world where you get to be in the thick of all the action but where you are also guaranteed safety. Fiction should let you live vicariously through a wide range of characters. Writing fiction should be fun. It should be intriguing as hell.

When I wrote Aberration, the most fun I had writing that book was when I wrote the scenes from the killer’s point of view because he was having black outs. Does this sort of thing happen in real life? Not exactly the way I have it in the book (and I must say I think Fiction should be allowed to take some liberties but that’s another post). Does this sort of thing happen to me? Nope. Do I ever want it to happen to me? Most certainly not! But it sure was fun to write.

My current work in progress has a protagonist who is exceptionally fun to write because she says things that I would never say—her personality is far more loud and brash than mine. I don’t know how to be like her but it sure is fun to write.

I think if I had to write only what I knew, I wouldn’t write. What would be the point? It wouldn’t be any fun. I like to use my imagination, my creativity!

So I think instead of writing what we know, we should use what we know in our writing. And if we don’t know something, well there’s always research. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is one of the best group of books I ever read. In fact, I just downloaded the first one to my Kindle so I can read the series again for the fifth time. (My paperback copy is 15 years old and falling apart). Did Diana Gabaldon travel back in time to 1700 in Scotland? Surely not. But wow, she writes a hell of a story about it. I once read that she had written that whole first book (and possibly more) without ever having been to Scotland. But she had an interest in Scotland and the research she did while writing her book has served her just fine.

I don’t think writers should limit themselves to writing what they know. I think if writers had followed that advice over the years, there are a heckuva lot of books that would never have been written—good books.

I say use what you know but don’t limit yourself by thinking you should write ONLY what you know. Use your imagination. Don’t let it go to waste.


  1. I don't necessarily write what I know, but I base a lot of what I write on the experiences I've been through and the people I've met. I don't think I could have a clear understanding of my character's motivations if I didn't know them in some way.

    I've never been kidnapped by Russian mobsters, but I did have a friend who was Russian and I inadvertently got mixed up with some of her questionable friends in San Francisco and saw something I wish I'd never seen. That's how I got the raw material for my villains in my book. It was almost organic for me, the fear I remembered generating these characters and scenes.

    But perhaps that's why I'm worried about my next project. Where am I going to get the next bit of material? Though I do think I have enough skill now to produce something out of thin air, I still need some inspiration.

  2. Use what you know. I like that. After reading your second paragraph I now feel that I've become too organized. I guess it's time to do something crazy. Hmm, sounds like your daughter might make a promising fantasy writer :)

    Read what I know?..no way, no fun in that. I agree that fiction should be intriguing. It should keep you at the edge of your seat or hold you in the shivering grasp of fascination.

    A killer with blackouts?...that could be dangerous.

    Here's a vote for using your imagination.

    My characters are not of this world. They're all products of my imagination. There are flaws that make them real, and I've stolen their personalities from real people. I've often had a dream of what the world could be like, what I could be like. That's what I try to apply to my writing. Whether it works, that's left to me determined.

  3. There are times I get frustrated, knowing that "my life" as it is will not provide useful fodder for my WIP. I know this is wrong, but I think of Grisham and Turow with their law backgrounds and Connelly with his police experience.
    Always research, but just another hurdle to negotiate on the way to believability. Oh, well.
    I do agree with your sentiments on imagination, though. If I can't use mine, I have no business calling myself a fiction writer.

  4. Bryce:

    Yes there is always the believability factor but I find even that is relative. I live in Philadelphia and have never known an author to portray this area accurately in their writing--even writers who claim to live or be from here. Also, peoples' experiences of things are so subjective that someone out there is ALWAYS going to say "that's not how it really is". For example maybe my experience of Philadelphia, having lived here most of my life is not the same as someone who grew up in South Philadelphia. Another example: (speaking of Grisham and Turrow) a personal injury lawyer is not going to have the same experiences as a criminal trial attorney--it's two wildly different worlds. But both are technically lawyers.

    A few years back, I had some personal reasons to to have a lot of interaction with police detectives and later I did a lot of research for one of my books where I spoke with actual police detectives. I went to one of the district buildings and met with detectives, got a tour, etc--lots of information. When I used that stuff in my book and my early readers read it they all said the same thing: "That's not believeable." I said "Not believable? That's how it IS".

    If I wrote things the way they actually are, people really wouldn't believe it. So I have to use a little fact and a little fiction. I think writing a good commercial novel comes down to entertainment. While believability is a factor, I don't think it's nearly as important as people think it is. Just a small example: people are addicted to those CSI shows where they have lab results back instantly. In real life it takes months, sometimes years to get some types of lab results back. Write that in your book and people will say that's not how it really is--so what do you do? I say make things as believable as you can but take liberties for the sake of entertainment.

  5. I write thrillers, and my life is anything but thrilling. That's why I write fiction and not non-fiction, so I can make stuff up! I think that "write what you know" adage is really only helpful in injecting *some* authenticity into characters and situations. For example, I used to work at a university and spent a lot of time in old buildings and walking around campus, and I used that same setting in my book. But I made up the serial killer parts :) I'm sure if I've had real-life experiences with serial killers, I wouldn't be alive now to write about it!

    Great post, Lisa!


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