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Write What You Know: Sage Advice or Hogwash?

 by Brenda Hill (originally on

While writing my first novel, I attended a lot of classes and read tons of how-to books. “Show, Don’t Tell” was a mantra I heard from most writing instructors, and it’s a technique writers must master in order for the material to come alive in the readers’ minds. It’s also one of the most difficult to learn.

But “Write What You Know?” I’d swallowed that line just as surely as a large-mouth bass swallows a June bug. And I came to an abrupt halt.

It would work if I, as a homemaker, wanted to write about taking care of a house, cooking, laundry, and washing windows. I could even throw in some pearls of wisdom about child rearing, and that book would be as interesting as watching seeds sprout.

A book about starting a business might have more interest, as I’ve had experience in opening a book store, but I wanted to write fiction. I wanted to write stories that other people would find interesting. I wanted to be a WRITER, but since I believed I could only write what I knew, I felt doomed. Everything in my experience was humdrum, and I didn’t know anything about an exciting life. How could I write fascinating novels that other people would be willing to buy and read?

But I’d proofed manuscripts written by writers who frequented my bookstore and knew they were homemakers and mothers as well. They weren’t sailing off for The Bahamas with a stud on each arm or closing in with drawn guns on the latest serial killer.

I checked my bookshelves and found novels of many different genres, some written by the masters, but more written by ordinary people who’d developed skills as writers. Yes, Robin Cook was a doctor, but did those stories of medical murder truly happen? I hope not. Did Stephen King stay at the Stanley Hotel, go whacko and threaten his wife? Of course not. I’d been a fan of Don Pendleton’s series, The Executioner, and I doubt Mr. Pendleton invaded the mob’s lair and gunned them all down, or that Peter Benchley actually battled a giant shark to the death.

Did they write what they knew? It’s possible they may have started with an idea based on something they knew, but their stories evolved from something else—their imaginations—and their passion for adventure, for entertaining others.

Now that I could do. 

My novel, Beyond the Quiet tells about a grieving widow who discovers her happy marriage was a sham. I wasn’t a widow, so I couldn’t write from actual experience, but I did lose my husband of thirty years to divorce, so I knew all the emotions: loss, shock, grief, betrayal, and rage. Some of my character’s other experiences, such as meeting a man who made her toes curl, hasn’t happened yet, but I have an active imagination. I’d love to meet a Terry O’Neal in my own life.

So in all fairness, the phrase, “Write What You Know,” may not be all hogwash. As writers, we should take our own life experiences, discard the mundane, remember the emotions we felt in our lives—especially the not-so-nice ones as they’re the juiciest—and use them for our stories.

Then let our imaginations soar. Be the adventurer who discovers Atlantis, or the woman whose mysterious ancestry leads her to an immortal Egyptian prince from the 18th Dynasty. Be the first female astronaut who lands on a distant planet in the forty-third galaxy. Or like Lisa in Beyond the Quiet, be a fortyish widow who falls in love and finally learns to live.

Guest post contributed by Brenda Hill. Brenda has authored several novels and her short stories have been published in a national women’s magazine. She’s edited for a small press, held the position of acquiring editor for another, and taught novel writing in two states. Her specialized courses of study included a novel’s structure as well as the opening chapter, pages that determine if an agent, publisher, or even a reader will want to turn those pages. Check out her website for free tips on writing, editing, and grammar.

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