Write What You Don’t Know

I’m sure as a writer you have all heard of the old adage, “write what you  know”. Frankly, this phrase drives me crazy and while I understand the concept, I think it’s wrong.

Tom Clancy wrote his debut novel while working for an insurance company. In 1983 at the age of 38, he published The Hunt for Red October. He obtained his research through books, interviews and papers and had two submarine officers review his finished manuscript. It was his attention to detail that made him a good writer, not necessarily what he knew.

You could also put Michael Crichton into this category however I’ll enter this one with caution. Prior to his breakout novel The Andromeda Strain, he wrote a lot of crime novels under the pen name, John Lange. We can argue all day about what he “knew” but my point is, knowledge isn’t always the antecedent for interest; in fact, it’s usually the other way around. In his professional career, his foundation was the medical field, not: time travel, paleontology, crime or medieval studies.

Dan Brown had an interest in music long before ever becoming a writer. After college he worked as a musician for a few years before teaching Spanish to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. In 1993, six years after he graduated from Amherst, he was inspired to write thrillers after reading The Doomsday Conspiracy, by Sidney Sheldon.

What would we do if Tom Clancy limited himself to writing thrillers about working in the insurance field, or if Michael Crichton wrote medical guides, or if Dan Brown just decided to stick to teaching Spanish to middle schoolers while maybe dabbling in music because what he knew wasn’t interesting enough in his mind to churn out number one best sellers? Don’t get me wrong, they all used their instincts and abilities, whether it was Tom Clancy’s incredible investigative skills, or Michael Crichton’s infusion of science and the medical field along with his imagination, or Dan Brown’s early fascination with puzzles and his creative mathematical mind which allowed him to comprise complex thrillers. Those are all important components to their writing but if they stuck to just what they knew, they would have limited themselves in what they could have written.

Curiosity is often the catalyst for knowledge. It’s what drove us as children to discover, it’s the fuel for philosophy, it’s why Einstein challenged the properties of gravity and came up with the theory of relativity and it’s also how we as a nation were able to go to the moon.

If you want to limit yourself to writing only what you know, then go right ahead. It may work for you but some of our best writers are explorers of what is unknown to them, and choose to immerse themselves in a world of fascination so that in turn, they can deliver that world in the form of riveting novels.

So maybe that old adage “write what you know”, should be changed to, “write what you are interested in”.


4 thoughts on “
Write What You Don’t Know

  1. “Curiosity is often the catalyst for knowledge.” Nice.

    What’s true for me in the “write what you know” adage is character. I can take my experiences with feeling isolated or breaking up with a partner and translate those for my characters — even if they’re time-travelers or doctors or something else I know nothing about. I can extrapolate power dynamics between the personality types of people I know, even if the characters clashing are on Venus. I think my characters are often asking some of the same questions about life as I do, which makes them real and true despite the plot or the setting being unfamiliar.

    1. Kate,

      That’s an interesting way of looking at it, after all, characters drive the story and knowing and understanding human feelings, traits and what makes someone tick is what allows a writer to create what feel like living and breathing people. The ability to extrapolate is perhaps the most important part of writing which I think requires someone to not only be a keen observer, but also, a regular participant in life either through experience, research or both.

      When I think of character, Thomas Harris and Stephen King come to mind. Thomas Harris, most famous for Silence of the Lambs, first wrote about Hannibal Lector in, Red Dragon. Talk about extrapolating. While we don’t quite walk through a serial killer’s mind (I believe Red Dragon is from Jack Crawford’s point of view) Harris’s portrayal of a serial killer feels real. There isn’t much out there in regards to Thomas Harris’s life as he’s a pretty private individual, so it’s hard to say whether he wrote what he knew. While I’m pretty sure he’s not a serial killer, he may have had a background in psychology or a penchant for true crime. Then you have Stephen King, who is real good at creating twisted characters. Annie Wilkes in Misery comes to mind. She’s a bat shit crazy character who demands the protagonist, author, Paul Sheldon, to not kill off her favorite character in a series he wrote called, Misery’s Child. Here, Stephen King is not only able to write a convincing crazy person but also a female antagonist. I would surmise that Stephen King had experiences in life with people like Annie Wilkes or maybe that she is a conglomeration of people he knew.

      In any event, I like your spin on it and hadn’t considered “writing what you know” in that regard.

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