Should You Write What You Know?

by Marylee MacDonald in Characters, For Beginning Writers

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Write what you know. That’s the most common piece of advice given to beginning writers.

But, should authors stick to the mundane world of their ordinary lives, or is it okay to explore imaginary worlds?

I’m not suggesting writers all rush to the side of the ship where fantasy, romance, zombie, thriller, and science fiction writers congregate. Not at all. Novel and short story writers of all stripes can write about characters totally unlike themselves.

If you’d like more on character development, download CREATING MEMORABLE CHARACTERS

My short stories are peopled with invented characters. I talk about some of these characters in a lengthy podcast I did with Robert Batista, host of The Funk Soul Cafe. Robert asked me about the man on the cover of BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD. That man is the elderly Mr. Tanaka, the main character in “The Ambassador of Foreign Affairs.” Tanaka-san comes to visit his daughter in California and finds himself in the awkward position of having to soothe his daughter’s jitters on the eve of her wedding.

I have never been an elderly Japanese man, but as I wrote the story, I felt myself walking in his shoes.

Who first said “write what you know?” Some attribute the advice to Louisa May Alcott, who wrote pulp fiction before writing the autobiographically-based novels that made her one of America’s best-loved authors.

Others attribute “write what you know” to Hemingway. Perhaps Hemingway’s training as a journalist did make him feel inclined to write about the life he knew best–fishing, fighting, and hunting–and his friends in the ex-pat world in France.

The truth is that many writers do base their characters on people they know. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway had big arguments about this, with one saying it was okay to make composite characters and the other arguing that the characters shouldn’t be composites. They should be like the people themselves, only with different names.

I’ve read much of Hemingway’s correspondence, but I’ve never found him advising younger writers to “write what you know.” He said something similar, but not those exact words.

Toni Morrison On Write What You Know

In a Paris Review interview with Elissa Schappell, here’s what Toni Morrison advises. Morrison studiously tries to avoid taking character traits from people she knows. As she puts it: “making a little life for oneself by scavenging other people’s lives is a big question, and it does have moral and ethical implications.”

Where does that leave writers who use a first person narrator? With the number of memoirs being published these days, it’s no wonder readers have trouble distinguishing fact and fiction.

When a reporter interviews you about your writing, you’ll hear questions that feel irrelevant to the way you wrote and conceived your work. Interviewers–and book clubs, too–look for autobiographical links. Maybe there are some, but the longer you write, the more a writer frees herself from “what really happened.”

For people who don’t write, the transformation that occurs during the creation of a work of fiction can seem mysterious.

Ann Beattie On A Recent Story Linked to the Shootings in San Bernardino

Ann Beattie is one of my favorite short story writers. In the link below, you can hear her read a story that arose from “real” events. She transformed these events through the alchemy of fiction.

Reporters who try to question authors about the writing process often miss the mark completely. Read the interview with Beattie and see if you agree.

I’m not sure why the interview was entitled on the “estrangement of old age.” Instead of taking offense, Beattie parries the questions lobbed over the net.

Imaginary People

It’s funny to hear Beattie interviewed about her characters as if they are, truly, real people who can be psychoanalyzed or discussed in the way people are often discussed on Oprah or Dr. Phil or Ellen. In other words, people who can be “fixed” by some of the psychobabble and self-help jargon that abounds.

Writers use the same raw materials available to everyone. We create stories from fragments of real events, and we imagine our characters into life.

Writers discover that fictional characters are—what’s the word—irreducible. Much as we understand our characters and can picture them walking around and eating and having sex in their fictional worlds, our characters surprise us with their actions and independence.

How do you handle reality? Have you ever changed sexes, names, or settings to “protect the innocent?” Would you feel liberated if you had permission to write about someone totally different from yourself? If, when you wrote, you embarked on a journey of discovery?

What do you thing about “write what you know?” Is this advice you’ve outgrown? If you have a moment, please leave a comment about how you’re handing this issue.


  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

2 Responses to “Should You Write What You Know?”

  1. Mary Clark says:

    For the most part as I’m writing I find that a character seems to resemble someone I’ve known, often very generally, and then I begin to work with that. When it’s positive I don’t feel, as Toni Morrison says above, that I’m scavenging. I sense that I’m realizing – getting to know the real person better – and improving my fictional person at the same time. When it’s negative, I pull back, and ask myself whether I’m letting past grievances show themselves in my work. And that makes me reflect on my own behavior and that of the real person. This has led me to write more subtly about people in conflict with one another.