Write what your know – or not

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.


JULY QUESTION: What would make you quit writing?

MY ANSWER: I would quit writing only if my health prevented me. Otherwise, never. Publishing is another matter. Strangely, it has nothing to do with my health or my writing.


As my answer to this month’s question is extremely short, I want to introduce another topic. You all know the sage advice many a writing guru give you: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. I disagree with it. I’m a speculative fiction writer. I write about magic and spaceships and telepathic squirrels. I don’t know any of it; it’s all imaginary. I make up the details as I go along.

The above adage might be true for contemporary fiction, or for someone writing about the field they specialize in, e.g. a historian writing historical fiction. Or a New Yorker writing a story set in their city. A sideline to this principle would be an in-depth research many historical writers undergo before they set their fiction in a specific place or time. For other genres, like speculative fiction, I’d go with a different maxim: WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO EXPLORE.

When I wanted to explore the world of shapeshifters, I wrote a fantasy story Tail to Treasure about a shapeshifter monkey. It was published in Bloodbond magazine in 2016.

When I wanted to explore the singing crystals, I wrote a science fiction story about them, or rather about a woman who could hear them sing. Here it is – my novella Crystal Song on wattpad. What about you? Do you write what you know or what you wish to discover? Or a variation of both? Tell me in the comments.

This entry was posted in Insecure Writer's Support Group, Olga Godim, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Write what your know – or not

  1. patgarcia says:

    I do both. I write what I know and what I want to discover, and also what I envision, which is the stepping stone that leads me into discovering. Knowledge is fluid for me. It doesn’t stand still. What may be true, for example, in the realm of science for today, might change tomorrow, because everything changes. So, I step out of the box on anything I write. I refuse to look at it in a mundane way, thinking that it is the same as yesterday.

    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  2. I love your shift in focus – and each and every one of your stories as well.

  3. Steph W says:

    I think that is why I lean toward speculative fiction. A good story does not have to follow reality! Still, some good research goes a long way!

  4. Write what you want to explore – exactly! I can’t explore space but my characters can.
    Telepathic squirrels? Now that’s original.

  5. I use both methods. Imagination is not what you know, but what you can ‘imagine’!

  6. spunkonastick says:

    Writing only what we know is boring. I’d prefer to explore.

  7. Jemi Fraser says:

    I like writing to explore as well. I mostly write contemporary romantic suspense, but I’m still exploring. I love learning as I write (careers, settings, animals, character traits…). It’s fun!

  8. Write what you want to explore sounds much more fun than writing what you know. 😉

  9. Erika Beebe says:

    That’s so beautiful Olga! I agree with you! As a creative who sees pictures so clearly in my head, most of the time it’s because I want to explore them. We are like scientists for words. Otherwise, what fun would it be?

  10. Jenni says:

    I’ve never liked the “write what you know advice.” Mainly, because I tend to see my own experiences as boring and want to explore other experiences. I think the “writing what you know” is true when it comes from drawing on your own emotional experience. I write some fantasy as well and have written things set in other countries/cultures, but how my characters relate and how they react comes from my own experiences and observations of human nature.

  11. emaginette says:

    Nicely said. I do the same. Writing and exploring are good ways to experience the imagination. 😉

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  12. Elizabeth Mueller says:

    I agree with you. If we wrote only what we knew, we’d be severely limited–but we would need to be familiar with events if writing historical fiction… I love world-building and magic and all that. So fun to exercise the imagination!

    ♥.•*¨Elizabeth Mueller¨*•.♥

  13. I submitted my comment and it just vanished–even without declaring an “awaiting moderation” so I’m not sure if you received it. 🙂

    ♥.•*¨Elizabeth Mueller¨*•.♥

  14. Loni Townsend says:

    I tend to start in the middle. I *know* my character is in a rainforest so I *explore* what all that entails. I don’t often start with the desire to figure something out, but more that I’ve thrown something in and now I have to figure it out. 🙂

  15. Carrie-Anne says:

    A lot of the conflicts I had with my parents, particularly my mother, about my writing were based on how I wasn’t obediently writing what I knew. My mother kept trying and failing to make me write short stories instead of novels, and with contemporary settings instead of historical. Secondhand research and empathy go a long way towards writing about what we haven’t personally experienced.

    The only time I feel it’s a mistake to write what you don’t know is when you’re, e.g., writing about being a college student or a married 30-year-old with several kids when you’re still in high school. My attempts at writing such characters and scenarios at that age were laughably inaccurate.

  16. I write fantasy and agree with you that the “write what you know” rule doesn’t apply. I like how you rephrased it to write what you want to explore.

  17. cleemckenzie says:

    I’m with you on both of your topics. Writing doesn’t have much to do with publishing for me either. It just seems like the inevitable conclusion to each story. Some of these stories will never go public because I wrote them for myself.

    I love to learn, and it seems you feel the same way. If we don’t explore, we can soon find a comfy rut in our writing. Here’s to exploration!

  18. Steven Arellano Rose says:

    Being a speculative fiction writer myself I often write what I want to explore. However, I do write some stories partly based on what I know. For example, a short story I’m working on features a protagonist who has a passion for mid 20th century pop culture which is a passion of mine, yet the story involves quantum physics, a subject I almost know nothing about. But I really wanted to write this story about alternative universes and timelines and to do that I had to research the subject of quantum physics and it turned out to be really fascinating!

  19. What a great maxim, Olga! ~ “Write what you want to explore.” I’ve been exploring some traumatic things in my life by writing a memoir. I’d be terrified to tackle speculative fiction. That said, I’m working on a piece about singing rocks, but it’s thoroughly grounded in reality. Whether its singing rocks or singing crystals, we writers all have to explore and write. Have a great July!

  20. Telepathic squirrels make me nervous… 😉
    Great advice!

  21. Denise Covey says:

    I changed that advice years ago – Write What You Want to Know – so you can go gangbusters on the research. I daresay writing spec fic and fantasy calls for a lot of worldbuilding. But in the nitty gritty of writing contemporary romance, such as I’m currently doing, my intimate knowledge of my setting, Paris, comes alive as I know it so well.

    Now, singing crystals, that’s intriguing.

  22. Yes, yes, yes! I always thought the socially realistic novels we were force fed in school were dang-blast boring. Most of our lives are not fun reading about. And I tried – unsuccessfully – telling my teacher that if I wanted everyday life, I could just raise my head from the books. Books should, pretty please give me something I could NOT see with my own eyes.
    I love speculative fiction, science fiction, travel to far away places books … in short all kinds of ‘use your imagination’ writing.

    When writing, I do both. My writing is a mixture, the realistic chapters being autobiographical (some titbits, not much of the boring parts 😉 ) and the magic ones being pure fiction. And for writing what you want to know, so much yes! I wrote a short story involving an airplane; thank heavens for research, the WWW, and fact-filled books!

  23. Thanks Olga for this post. I agree with you. What we know is just a foundation on which we can build our own imagination. Creating is fun when you master a craft and enjoy performing it, but feeding your curiosity when writing is what, I think really enables us to soar into blissful fields of art.
    Wishing you lots of new ways to imagine stories and an inspired albeit restful summer….to refuel. Take care.

  24. Diane Burton says:

    I agree with you about writing what you want to know. I write science fiction romance. I research a lot, watch a lot of sci-fi movies and TV series. Yet, people are people. The setting may be all in my head, my imagination. i love making up worlds.

  25. Lee Lowery says:

    I completely agree with you! If I only wrote “what I know” it’d be pretty darn boring. I love learning about new places, new things, new ideas. I’m writing a detective novel set in 1860. Don’t “know” a thing about the era, but I have had the time of my life learning about it.

  26. yvettecarol says:

    Love the telepathic squirrels, Olga! I’ve always felt really bored by the adage ‘write what you know’. Guess what folks, I don’t know a lot but my imagination is endless!

  27. Victoria Marie Lees says:

    Absolutely write what you want to explore, Olga! That’s how we learn as writers. It’s how we share our knowledge with others and teach the reader something new. Great post! Have a beautiful weekend!

  28. Donna Hole says:

    The internet has made us all experts on a lot of topics. At least enough to make us sound credible, lol. Do you remember going to the Library and picking up an encyclopedia to research – anything. How did we live with such limited knowledge!?!

  29. I like to do both, and sometimes mix them into a slurry of whatever you want to call it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.