Write What You Know? Bah.


We all have ideas rambling around about writing projects that never get written. We pick things up from time to time and file them away for future recall as something strikes us and the need to get it out is overwhelming. This happened to me yesterday as I was reading one of my writing magazines. I read an interview that raised my eyebrows over my steaming cup o’ joe. The debut author, a science fiction writer, admitted she didn’t read science fiction – in fact she wasn’t particularly drawn to it. Hunh? It sure puts the kibosh on the phrase “write what you know.”

“Writers must read,” it is said. In order to become familiar with our genre, to get new ideas, to see how the masters did (do) it, one must read more than one writes. A turn of phrase, a new word, a beautifully, nay artfully, described scene must be absorbed and studied; it’s invigorating, by golly, and will get your synapses racing.

Makes sense. Get a feel for how it’s done. That is to say, how others get it done.

I love to read, but my spare time is spent writing first, then reading. I can’t seem to stop the voices in my head and they need to be put to bed before I am, the little darlings. I have read enough in my lifetime to get the gist of it.

But it got me to thinking. We’ve had discussions here at WOS about critique groups and the impact of others on our work. I found critique groups somewhat useful when I started, but the amount of time spent getting the pages ready, critiquing others and evaluating the comments is a bad investment for me. When I didn’t have a full-time job, it was a nice way to spend an afternoon with fellow writers, but at the end of the day I went down my own path.

Which appears to be what this young lady is doing. She struck out on her own, with no road map, no precedent set before her, no rules, and no guidance, apparently. She listened to the beat of her own story, didn’t compare herself to others, and just told the tale that needed to be told. I don’t know if she had input from others (probably so), but if she did, I imagine she just shrugged it off.

So, as I do often, I did a character study of her, this woman who so intrepidly went forward with a story she had no background or interest in. I have the beginning of a short story:

Her name is Sally. No, Sarah. She’s young, not married yet, no children, a college graduate, probably a business major, slogging away in a corporate job that drains her of all her humanity. Her boyfriend reads a lot of science fiction, and she rolls her eyes and sticks with him because he’s cute. She’s an Austin/Forrester/Galsworthy/Wharton kind of gal. So she sits and listens to the music and the dialog of the movies he watches or the video games he plays and starts to make things up, if only to drown out the nonsense she’s exposed to.

She keeps her writing a secret. She sneaks in a paragraph or two at work (probably pages, but I won’t tell), dreams about the story, and gets up in the middle of the night because the aliens or the monsters or the drones (whatever science fiction has, I have no idea) are percolating in her pure, young, virginal science fiction brain. She is open to come up with new concepts, new characters, and new ideas without the influence of the weird science that came before.

Influences come from all directions – as with Sarah, the background sounds of the science fiction movie or her boyfriend’s description of the book he was reading got attached to some part of her brain and she just started working it. This is where we get our ideas, no? Reading, watching, discussing, observing human nature sparks ideas and puts a new spin on things.

She didn’t ask anyone “what happens to…” “what do you think if…” “what would Zolna do…”. She asked herself. No. Scratch that. She didn’t have to. She just did it. It came out in a torrent, and it was perfect. (Hey, it’s my story and I can have Cinderella aspects if I want.)

Sarah was just as surprised as her friends and family when her book was accepted and published and when an article written about her appeared in a writers’ magazine. No one suspected she was a writer, and definitely didn’t project a science fiction genre for her.

So how does her story end? Her boyfriend proposes, the book is a bestseller, they buy a house, settle down, have a family, and she quits that corporate job. Her days are spent writing. And, oh yeah, she has a housekeeper who cooks. Sigh.

In about two minutes I had the entire story plotted out, and the magazine was still in my hands. Sarah’s success is effortless, there’s no conflict, and she’s an instant success. It has an HEA ending, she gets to write without interruption and no responsibilities. Where do you suppose that came from?

Sarah, if she existed, used the influences bombarding her on a daily basis and produced something in a genre she knew nothing about. I know people who deliberately go to Starbucks and eavesdrop for story ideas, and some who rip off other stories (Hollywood has been doing this for years). I sit in restaurants and watch other people and make up stories about them.

Where do your ideas come from, and when do they strike?




Author: Kathy Weyer

Kathy Weyer is a reformed Human Resource executive and Marriage and Family Therapist. She has worked in several hospices as a grief and bereavement counselor.

4 thoughts on “Write What You Know? Bah.”

  1. I get a lot of ideas while daydreaming, and some nighttime dreams that stick with me.
    Whenever I am doing repetitive tasks – gardening, dishes, dusting, my mind wanders to new places and vistas and I “talk” with many characters!
    I perfected daydreaming in parochial elementary school. We were required to sit still with hands folded when the teacher spoke. I daydreamed then, and because I was extremely near sighted (not discovered until fourth grade!) my imagination roamed very freely.
    Not much has changed. (Except for Lasix surgery to correct the vision issue 15 years ago.) Whenever I am quietly waiting, my now focusing eyes roam, creating shapes and stories and filling my head with stories to move them along. I’m probably certifiably crazy, but very happy!
    The other source of ideas comes from stories I read in the news, shows I watch that raise unanswered questions.
    Bottom line, my mind is rarely inactive, always engaged. Makes life more interesting!
    About “just writing” it down, I agree with Gene’O. A one shot wonder is amazing. I am now studying technique, learning to use language like a an artist uses a canvas and brush. What I put there is “me” – but learning the craft makes the experience for myself and readers hopefully more engaging and worthwhile!

  2. I rip things off a bit, but I try to put a personal twist on them. I have no clue where my real ideas come from, though. Some come from dreams. Some from processing my totally weird and taxing family. Some from me obsessing over the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.

    I have never liked the “write what you know” rule. It seems constrictive to the imagination. But I am totally down with the “read good examples of the things you hope to write” rule. Breaking into a genre with no clue about how the genre works is like being struck by lightning. Not repeatable, and not going to happen to more than one in a million writers.

    This is an awesome story, but even if what happened to the protagonist actually happened, I don’t believe it happens often enough to be something that should be consciously attempted. You don’t have to write what you know. But, you should know what you’re writing.

    I hope that last bit made sense.

    1. I agree completely – constrictive to the imagination. But then again, I’ve never liked to follow “rules.” Just ask my mom. But seriously, the story I made up of the writer wouldn’t happen, I agree. I let my imagination flow to the HEA end, and what fun is there in that???

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