Search:
 
 

Writing What You Know

Almost everyone who’s taken a creative writing class has heard a teacher utter the following phrase:  “Write what you know.”

Write what I know?  Psst. Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t know how it feels to absorb emotional energy for sustenance, like Taste Me‘s hero, incubus security guru Lukas Sebastiani. And though I can hold my own at karaoke, I have zero clue what it feels like to stare, wilted and exhausted, into a hot spotlight and still drive a crowd wild, like burned out siren rock star Scarlett Fontaine.

No, I don’t know these things first-hand, but like all writers, I’ve…lived. I’ve seen things, done things, felt things. I’ve had personal experiences and emotional reactions that I can recall and then use to add authenticity to my stories.

Write what I know? Hoo boy.

  • Hospitals: I’ve spent a lot of time at hospitals, as a patient and as a visitor. I know how they smell (heavy on the rubbing alcohol and boiled coffee), how they sound (LOUD), I know their routines backward and forward. I’m the patient whose door is always closed. The lack of privacy drives me nuts. Between the army of interns, residents and attendings, and being stared at by others’ visitors as they pass by, it’s hard to not feel like an animal on display at the zoo. (Point of etiquette – please don’t look into other patients’ rooms en route to the person you’re there to visit.)
  • Work and meetings:  I’ve worked in technology for a couple of decades now, and despite the job’s depiction in TV shows and in the movies, it’s not all banging out code  jacked up on pizza and Red Bull. Technologists attend a surprising number of meetings, some of them productive, some of them not.  I hope I’ve done a decent job disguising the guy who hijacks the meeting at the beginning of Taste Me, because he’s straight from my life. But exaggerated slightly. And not a werewolf. (I don’t think.)  Agendas, conference calls, meeting minutes, action items, Pareto charts, metrics, feedback and review, flow charts, PowerPoint decks, decision trees, vision, mission and culture statements. I’m boring myself here. Pleeeease.  Make it stop.
  • Nausea: Having had Crohn’s Disease for two-thirds of my life, I have first-hand knowledge of nausea in all its glorious forms. Due to a genetic glitch, Lukas tastes the emotional energy he ingests (thus the title of the book) but frankly, negative emotional energy tastes pretty damn bad.  He fights nausea off and on throughout the book, but has to figure out a way to live his life despite of it.
  • Burnout: At the beginning of Taste Me, Scarlett’s battling a bad case of job burnout. Leading up to 2009 RWA National, the year we Rubies all finaled in the Golden Heart, I was experiencing the same thing. Scarlett’s exhaustion and lethargy, the irrational bursts of anger, her lack of focus, her desire to escape into sleep… Been there, done that.

Isn’t it funny how things leach from your personal life to your writing?

“Write what you know.”  I’ve been a crime victim. I’m a pro at taping ankles and walking on crutches. I’m legally blind without my glasses. I’ve had surgery more times than I can count. I’m an overly-responsible oldest child. I’m a massive introvert.  I’ve walked the snow at-46′ F. (it squeaks like a Styrofoam take-out container, and god help you if you’re wearing contact lenses.)   I’ve driven quarter mile drags on a hot summer day, burning rubber off the car’s tires. Between practice and meets, I’ve nailed thousands of gymnastics routines, and have fallen on thousands more – sometimes badly. I’ve thrown elbows in the mosh pit to save a beloved leather jacket from a beer-dousing, I’ve worn safety pins in my ears, and dyed my hair purple (hey, cut me some slack, it was the 80’s). I’ve surfed in Maui – again, badly. I’ve smoked pot, skinny dipped, euthanized beloved pets, and watched my father’s cremains drift to the bottom of a crystal-clear lake.  I’ve dated some extraordinary men. I’ve been married, I’ve gotten divorced, and I’ve dared to love again.

You see where I’m going with this. For writers, our life experiences – all of our life experiences, the good, the bad and the utterly ordinary – are reusable, transferrable, the gifts that keep on giving.

Listen to your life. Write what you know.

What have you experienced or intimately observed in your life that can lend greater authenticity to your stories? Which authors do you feel “write what they know” very, very well indeed?

Today, one non-Ruby commenter will receive an advanced reading copy of  TASTE ME!

Tamara Hogan’s debut urban fantasy romance, TASTE ME, Underbelly Chronicles Book One, will be released March 1, and is available for pre-order now!

40 responses to “Writing What You Know”

  1. Vivi Andrews says:

    I’m so looking forward to Taste Me, Tammy!

    As far as writing what you know, you make a great point. I think it’s mostly about being aware of the world around you so you can constantly be learning new things to fill your books. My stuff would be deadly dull if I was only allowed to write about my daily life. 🙂

    0
    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Hi Vivi! Yes, awareness of the world around us is a huge component. I write in very deep third person POV, and every day I sit down to write, I’m reminded that I need to write my characters’ inner lives in a very intimate, saturated manner. And their experiences are by no means my own.

      Right now at the coffeeshop I write at, a mother is being completely and thoroughly outgunned by her 2-year-old, who does NOT want to put on his mittens, thank you very much. Her facial expression – a mix of frustration and patience – is something that I, as a childfree person, want to remember. Free research!

      0
      • Oh, heaven, Tammy. You wisked me back in time so fast I have vertigo! It’s amazing the things you miss when their gone. (Now I’ll have Joanie Michell (sp?) in my head all day.) 😉

        0
      • Tamara, with my house in chaos, I’ve recently started working at a coffeeshop, too (loving it, BTW), and I’m amazed by what I can hear if I’m listening. People cry. It’s wild.

        I’ve started bringing headphones. It’s like a soap opera if I don’t!

        0
        • Tamara Hogan says:

          Disable the wireless, slap on the headphones…and there’s nothing else to do except write! I’m not nearly as productive writing at home as I am at the coffee shop.

          0
  2. Laurie Kellogg says:

    I think you can also write what your friends and family know. I’ve learned so much from other people’s mistakes and experiences. So reaching out to those around you is also a great way to expand your boundaries.

    0
    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Great idea, Laurie. We can reach even further, observing and speaking with people whose lives and experiences are completely different from our own. My friends have suggested to me that if the technology and writing gigs ever go bust, I should consider training as a psychological profiler for the FBI.

      Book Three of my series features a heroine, a person of religious faith, who finds that faith rocked because the man she’s attracted to is an incubus, a sex demon right out of her religious tradition’s mythology. I’ll need to interview a very good friend to gain better insight into Bailey’s religious faith, and how it informs her inner conflict.

      0
  3. Writing what you know, as you so effectively illustrate, means more than writing your experiences. Maybe that’s why some writers get tripped by the phrase. Using what you’ve experienced to give a character depth is imperative. I know nothing of deep space travel, but my sweetie was a pilot, my cousin worked in the aerospace industry as a technician, and I watched Carl Sagen religiously back in the day. I still am awed by some of the Hubble Satellite (as opposed to MY Hubble) pictures. Since that stuff is peripheral in my sci-fi, I actually sound like I have a clue.

    I’ve never been to 1485, but I’ve been in love, faced disappointment, danger, and difficult decisions. Some things are just part of life whatever the age.

    0
    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I miss Carl. (I’ve…appropriated aspects of his persona for fictional purposes in TASTE ME.)

      I agree, Gwynlyn. If writers are having some trouble with “Write what you know”, they might consider flipping the phrase from an external focus to an internal one. From experiences to emotions. Emotions transcend space and time – human emotions, anyway. I’m writing an alien-born antagonist right now, and not making human assumptions about his emotional state is a continual challenge.

      0
  4. Elisa Beatty says:

    Great post, Tamara!

    Especially in a genre like romance, where so much needs to be Bigger Than Life in so many ways, we *can’t* just crib from our everyday lives (if we did, I know *my* characters would be spending an awful lot of time at the computer keyboard, and much of the rest doing laundry.)

    What’s more important is to write what you know to be true emotionally. I absolutely agree with you and Gwynlyn and Vivi and Laurie that we can find those truths in our ordinary lives, or from observing those around us.

    As a teacher, I witness a LOT of human drama every day, with many, many different personality types colliding. PLENTY to write about.

    0
    • Tamara Hogan says:

      **snerk.** Yes, my h/h’s would spend a lot time at a keyboard, or watching TV.

      A good friend of mine is a teacher, and she says the same thing. It breaks my heart to hear her talk about providing fruit and microwave popcorn in her alternative classroom so the kids get SOMETHING to eat that day.

      0
  5. kelly fitzpatrick says:

    I’m not sure anyone would want to read about the stuff I know, unless they needed a sleeping pill in the form of a book.

    0
  6. Kate Parker says:

    Great post, Tamara. My DH hates to sit next to people talking loudly in restaurants, but he knows I’m just lapping it up. Yesterday, I listened to three women I can’t put in a book because their conversation was so boring I stopped eavesdropping.

    I love to people watch, even though I write historicals. Emotion translates well across the years or the genres.

    0
    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I don’t so much hate sitting next to loud talkers at at restaurant. It’s loud EATERS that I can’t abide.

      Eavesdropping on others’ conversations can be absolutely fascinating – though sometimes I don’t think people realize a) how loudly they’re actually speaking and b) when they’re veering into TMI-land. Last year I overheard a cell phone conversation a young woman was having with…someone… that was so intimate that I was certain I’d soon learn the results of her latest PAP smear.

      0
    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Hee hee…I LOVE eavesdropping! Sometimes I send my acting or creative writing students on a mission over the weekend to jot down overheard conversations. It’s always amazing what they hear!

      0
  7. Tamara Hogan says:

    Hi everyone – I will be offline for awhile, attending the funeral of a family friend. Never fear; The Rubies will keep you company while I’m gone! Back in a bit.

    0
  8. This post is fantastic, Tammy!!!! And you are right, so much of our personal lives lends authenticity, as it were, to our writing and we can leech out the emotions and sensory experiences to improve our prose.

    Such a great post!
    ~D~

    0
    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I like re-purposing things I know I can describe into completely new situations. One example: I was once knocked unconscious by a single punch to the face. Let’s go for understatement here and say that it wasn’t a fun experience. But the heroine of my second book, Valkyrie Lorin Schlessinger, is very physical, and spars – in a fighting cage – for fun. She not only can take a punch, but she can dish them out. Theraputic? Maybe. But it definitely serves the story. 😉

      0
  9. Rita Henuber says:

    Tammy, this is great, thanks. Our personal beliefs, values and experience translates to our voice on the page.

    0
  10. Hope Ramsay says:

    Tammy,

    Being a rebel and a child of the sixties, I have always sneered at conventional wisdom. And “write what you know” always struck me as being quintessentially conventional. I figured that if people did something like that, you’d get a lot of boring books.

    So, I rebelled against this wisdom for a long time. My writing career didn’t go very far.

    But when I finally wrote a book based on my experiences as a child in the deep South, something magical happened. And that’s the book I sold.

    So there must be a kernal of truth in this conventional wisdom after all. Now I’m singing in the choir of the converted.

    🙂

    0
  11. liz talley says:

    Very nicepost, Tammy. And very true. Though I have to admit often I ask of my characters, “What would I do?” Then I think “What would this character do based on how I’ve built him/her?” I have to constantly think about how my experiences with family, friends, love, etc color my world and often bleed onto characters that are nothing like me. So sometimes I write about what I wish I knew. LOL.

    I do like to control the world where my story is set. No foreign locales for me…I’m pretty sure my unfamilarity (is that a word?) would show through. So I like to set my characters in a similar world as me and give them jobs and experiences I feel comfortable with otherwise it wouldn’t be very authentic. And I love authenticity in a book.

    0
    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Liz, you’re definitely another shining example of the impact of writing what you know.

      You’ve said you know real towns like Oak Stand, Texas (the setting of Liz’s three books so far, for those who might not know)–and the “lived experience” quality definitely resonates on every page of your books. I’ve never even visited a town like that, but Oak Stand feels very real to me because of how well you “know” it, and it has a depth and humanity I’m sure it wouldn’t if a Northerner tried to write the same stories…

      Again…sucks for historical writers. Time machine, where are you???? (or at least a plane ticket to England…)

      0
  12. Beautiful post, Tamara. I recently ate lunch with a friend who writes, and she asked me about my work at the zoo. I love talking about the work I’ve done — and do — with animals, as well as the animals themselves. She then asked me which of my characters has been a zoo keeper. Puzzled, I didn’t see the connection, but I said the truth, which is that none are.

    She seemed to think it strange and silly that I wasn’t writing about a subject I so obviously love, and I got her point. Then I told her about how an animal will figure strongly — possibly as the villain, which will be hard for me — in my next novel, and she sat back, satisfied that I wasn’t running away from what I know.

    I think it can be hard for us to acknowledge our strengths. We sit in our skin for so long that we forget what makes us special, or maybe we start to covet someone else’s special.

    0
    • Tamara Hogan says:

      –> We sit in our skin for so long that we forget what makes us special, or maybe we start to covet someone else’s special.

      SO true. There are phases in my writing where I simply can’t read certain authors – Lois McMaster Bujold and Nalini Singh come to mind, and Anna Campbell is new to the list – because I get too psyched out by their gifts. “I’m not worthy!”

      0
    • Kelley Bowen says:

      <<>>

      So true.

      I never understood “write what you know”-it seemed oversimplified. But after reading this post and its comments, I understand it isn’t about what you know as if everything you know is quantifiable…it’s about what you know in your skin and your heart…your mysteries…this is the jumping off point…this is what you know…it’s very cool…I’m not sure what that means with regard to my writing…but I always enjoy a good epiphany. 🙂

      0
      • Tamara Hogan says:

        Yup! To Jamie’s point, her friend seemed to expect her to LITERALLY write what she knew – write a character who was a zookeeper. But Jamie can use her experiences as a zookeeper to lend authenticity to her writing in less overt or obvious ways.

        Not that a zookeeper hero or heroine wouldn’t be cool as hell. 😉

        0
        • …and to my friend’s credit, I think she knew I’d say no to the “are there any zookeepers in your books?” question. I think she was making a point in the pointiest way possible.

          0
  13. Leslie Karen Witwer says:

    Love the religious woman/sex demon set-up! Brilliance! Can’t wait for TASTE ME as well. You’re a busy lady.

    Have you read the Diana Gabaldon interview where she confesses that her description of Jamie’s *ahem* posterior in the filtered sunlight was taken directly from her observation of the Mr? Now that is experience translated beautifully. (‘course she writes about flies drowning in whiskey exquisitely, too–just saying)

    0
    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Leslie, no, I hadn’t heard that story about the origins of Gabaldon’s description of Jamie’s ass…ets. 😉 What a hoot! and what a moment. Brilliantly written.

      0
  14. Joya says:

    Great post, Tamara. You’re so right. The tough times (and the good times) that we experience–or witness–not only make us who we are, they also make our characters who they are.
    Thanks for sharing!
    :)Joya

    0
    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Tough time, good times – and completely ordinary times can hit you in an extraordinary way, can’t they, Joya? When I was a teenager, I remember coming home after a month in the hospital and just flopping onto my own bed. I really appreciated the feel of my own mattress and sheets.

      0
  15. Tamara Hogan says:

    The winner of the TASTE ME ARC is…Joya!

    0
  16. Tina Joyce says:

    Tammy, I’m a day late, but couldn’t let this post get by without saying how fabulous it was, and oh so true. We all bring our personal world-view and our experiences to our books. Thanks so much for helping me see “write what you know” in a whole new way!

    0
  17. […] Write What You Know? – What the hell does that […]

    0

Subscribe to the Blog

The Latest Comments

  • Tamara Hogan: Heather, what gorgeous gowns! And bless you (and other authors) who represent our genre so wonderfully,...
  • Addison Fox: What a fun post!! I think conferences are one of my most favorite parts of being a writer –...
  • Elizabeth Chatsworth: What an interesting (and useful) article on preparing for readers’ events. Thank you for...
  • Cynthia Huscroft: Fabulous “dress-up” pictures. Have a fabulous time!
  • Autumn Jordon: I love seeing your dress-up pictures, Heather. Have an awesome time at the event and report back to us.

Archives