Should You Write What You Know?

Writers are often told to “write what you know.” If you have knowledge about a subject, then write about it. Experts write about their field of expertise, so if you happen to be a great collector of bottle caps, then write a book about it. But when it comes to fiction, this becomes a bit of an issue.

Let’s assume I will write what I know. In university, I majored in physics and astronomy, which includes fields such as relativity, quantum mechanics, fluid dynamics, radio astronomy, electronics, radiation, lasers, optics, planetary science, thermodynamics, cosmology, and all the really basic physics from Newton, Copernicus, and Galileo. I did not study string theory, as it was still very much in its infancy when I was in university. I also took courses in chemistry, geology, atmospheric sciences, and programming. So, through these, I know how reactions work, how to make batteries, how to make rudimentary explosives, what causes weather phenomena, how volcanoes work, what happens during an earthquake, how plate tectonics happens, the fossil record, and how to make a paint program (although I’ve completely forgotten). I have also taken online courses where I learned things like plant communication and archaeology. I have used many of these when working on Ariadne, as well as worldbuilding.

For Ariadne, I have used geology, numerous aspects of astronomy, atmospheric sciences, and the knowledge I have about evolution and biology through high school, one of my geology courses, and my own personal interest. For the future series about the dying man whose final wish is to explore the solar system, I use my knowledge of the planets, as well as physics involved in spacecraft propulsion, orbital mechanics, and so on. So yes, I am writing what I know.

But you see, that’s not enough. There are many gaps in my knowledge that I need to fill to make my stories more believable and realistic. For Ariadne, I need to research more about spacecraft propulsion systems (though I have a good idea about these anyway), DNA (especially mutations and recessive/dominant genes), urban planning and land use, and religion. To do these, I read a lot. I’ll read books when I can, I’ll search on the internet for scientific papers, and I’ll even use Wikipedia.

Reading books is great. I love doing it. If there are books about DNA, I think they’ll help me with my research on hereditary traits, recessive and dominant genes, and so on. The library is great for this. You don’t have to read the entire book, just the relevant parts. Encyclopedias are good, too.

Searching on the internet for scientific papers is very useful. I only go through official channels for these, so I’m not seeing opinions of the scientifically illiterate. I’m going straight to the legitimate source, the actual scientists that did the research. This can take some time, unfortunately, due to the nature of many papers. They can be utterly dull to search through to find what you want to know. But it has to be done.

However, Wikipedia is often a quick way to do this. I know many people say that Wikipedia is a poor source, but it is actually a very, very good source. The information on it isn’t made up. It’s taken from official sources, verified, double-checked, and scrutinized closely. Everything must be referenced. There must be legitimate sources. Don’t believe Wikipedia? Then follow the references to the original publications. You’ll get your information there.

Writing fiction isn’t all about what you know. You need to expand your horizons. Write about what you don’t know. Learn about it. You’ll become a better writer, and be able to cover many more situations in a believable manner.

What’s your opinion? Do you think we should just write what we know? Or should we research extensively to improve our knowledge and write about many different things? Let me know in the comments below.


27 thoughts on “Should You Write What You Know?”

  1. I think the phrase is good, but only a beginning. I’ve heard it said you should write what you know and write what scares you, but I also took it to mean you write what you “know” as in what’s in your emotional core, because that will be the foundation for some of the most authentic stories. This doesn’t mean you don’t research the heck out of things. I’ve done so much research on a variety of subjects as a writer, some of them completely out of left field for what I thought I’d need to learn for a particular story. I could probably write a dissertation on feline visual fields with all I’ve read up on that for my last finished work. I also love keeping track of google searches utilized during a particular story. It always gives me something interesting to blog about hehe.

    1. I often do blog about things I’ve researched for my writing. For my worldbuilding posts, I do a lot of research, and this leads to better world development for my writing. I guess it can go both ways.

  2. Whilst it’s good to write about what you know, it’s equally important I think to research any new topic. Expand our horizons so to speak. It’s a bit like life really. If we don’t ask questions, learn, explore new concepts, delve deeper we won’t get too far.

  3. I think it depends on the writer. It can certainly be easier to write about something with which you are intimately familiar, and everyone starts with at least some semblance of knowledge when they structure a story. Yet a large dash of imagination, when combined with good writing, is generally appreciated. Where would we be if Tolkien had steadfastly adhered to the world he knows?

  4. I learned to write what I want to know. Just because I work in retail doesn’t mean I want to write a story set in a retail location.

    When I was just learning how to write fiction lo those many years ago they were teaching write what you know. Not book learning but life experiences so they say oh take a year to travel and try things out and I’m like dude I’m poor. I can’t just take off on a backpacking trip across Europe.

    So I write SF with using history as a guide as to how my societies form or even how they record their own history.

    1. I write science fiction and fantasy, neither of which I can say I’ve experienced in real life. That’s what’s wonderful about speculative fiction. You write about the unknown. But to do so requires a vivid imagination, and I think an understanding of both history and human behaviour. For SF, a knowledge of science is definitely a benefit, but it can be learned.

      1. Sometimes the ones who have formal science degrees tend to show off what they know in their work whether or not it is relevant to the story. It drags down the story and you find that you can completely skip those sections and not miss a thing.

        1. Alastair Reynolds tends to do that in his books. He’s so technical, dedicating a full page to describe something, many people wouldn’t understand it. I do, which makes it so much more interesting to me, but it’s not going to work for everyone. He’s a former astrophysicist for the European Space Agency, while I have a degree in physics and astronomy.

  5. It’s funny that you should write about this because, about a week ago, I was having a conversation with another author about #WeNeedDiverseBooks wherein they pled the case of “if people do not know something, they cannot write about that something and shouldn’t feel obligated to put it in their story to check a box.” While I agreed with certain parts of that assertion, I took issue with the part that stated “you can’t write what you don’t know.” In what universe does a writer not write what they don’t know? Writing what you know is not an excuse to partition your work off from anything you don’t have experience with. Women can write men; young can write old; the scientific can write creatively; all you have to do is research it. I stand by that 100%.

    1. Did that author understand the need for research? I couldn’t write what I write without doing some research. It’s absurd to think that you only need to write about what you know. I can see this would be fine for things like an autobiography, but fiction often takes us out of our comfort zone.

  6. I buy it part way. I take it to mean the little things, like falling in the mud in front of a girl you want to impress. I acknowledge that I write fiction and do not have to be perfect. What I have to do is sell it well. Many kinds of fiction are completely unrealistic. Think of stories about what happens when the girl kisses the frog. I’ve held a frog, smelled a frog, dissected a frog. I’ve never turned one into a handsome price before, but in fiction I can. Some genres will require much more plausibility. There are 2 kinds of science fiction. In the Flash Gordon variety, the realism can take a back seat. If I want to write something like The da Vinci Code I’ll need to do more research than if I want to write The Mummy returns.

    1. Right. It really depends on how realistic you want the story to be. I’m a fan of realism in science fiction, so I use the scientific approach. Fantasy, of course, can all be made up. But I still want things like battle tactics, human anatomy, and biology to be realistic.

      Anyway, congratulations, your comment was the 12,345th comment on this blog.

      1. I’ll try to stick around for 123,456. There is a rift between technical science fiction and just for fun science fiction. It shouldn’t be this way, because a good story is a good story. I had to do a ton of research for some of my paranormal tales, and my Greco-Roman fantasy.

  7. I think that you do need to know or research science, history, and other facts that underlie your story, even though ti isn’t in this world. I am more used to the “write what you know” dictum referring to the psychological/emotional component of writing. While one won’t have had the exact experience of a character, one needs to have the depth and maturity to express the thoughts, feelings, and motivation of each character.

    1. Character depth is one thing that I think many people can’t do well. They appear stereotypical or shallow quite often. Knowing human behaviour, psychology, and so on, would definitely help. I think this deserves a blog post!

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