Monday, March 14, 2011

Write What I KNOW? Are you KIDDING?

by Holly Jahangiri

Somewhere after, "Show, don't tell!" comes the advice to "Write what you know." It's sensible advice, but like "Show, don't tell" it offers little guidance to a novice who doesn't already understand the concept. In fact, if your first reaction to hearing "Write what you know" was to throw up your hands and say, "But I don't know anything! I'm doomed!" you're not alone.

But you'd be wrong.

"Write what you know" is just shorthand for "Pull it from somewhere deep inside you. Somewhere real, even if what you're crafting is fiction. Because fiction must be a believable lie, no matter how far-fetched the scenario. Reach in and dig around in the chambers of your heart for real emotion. Wander the mental library stacks to rifle through the memories and pick up inspiration from real events that you've observed or experienced first-hand. Steal your friends' quirks and mannerisms and do the ultimate mash-up to create characters that are familiar - but new and not likely to get you sued. Remember all that reading you did when you were a kid? You know what you liked about it, what sucked you in and kept you reading all the way to the dinner table. Use it all."

Try this:

  1. Grab a piece of paper and a pen.
  2. Think back to when you were in 7th grade. Jot down three memories that stand out. They don’t have to be huge events in your life, just three that come to mind when you hear “7th grade.” List them on the paper.
  3. Who was your best friend that year? Write down a list of traits, quirks, mannerisms, and actions they did that made you especially like them.
  4. Who was your nemesis or rival that year? Write down the traits, quirks, mannerisms, and actions that angered or frustrated you.
  5. Now, flash forward – in your adult life, who is the most difficult person you have to deal with on a daily basis? What makes them difficult or challenging? What do you LIKE about them?

Next, write a story:

The year is 7th grade. The protagonist, from whose point of view you’ll write the story, is the challenging adult you named above (5). Give this person a new name, and regress them to the age of twelve. What makes them tick? Strive to understand them and to see their hidden potential, but use it in the raw form it might have taken when they were twelve. Take the best friend you listed (3) and make them the “inspirational teacher” – the one adult who makes a difference in your protagonist’s life. The antagonists of your story are your nemesis’ and rivals (4) – but make a real effort to give them depth – don’t let them be “evil” caricatures of themselves. Give them credible motives and feelings drawn from what you NOW know of human nature – secrets your protagonist has yet to figure out. Use the events of your own 7th grade year (2) as plot points – how do your characters react? How do they grow and change (or not) as a result of these events and their outcomes? Flesh it out with details drawn from memory and imagination.

Do you see, now, that “Write what you know” doesn’t require a degree in physics, or a background in medieval history? You can research the details if you can read – and if you write, then you know how to read. So now, add a little challenge: Pick your worst subject in 7th grade and research it in sufficient detail to write and describe a simple 7th grade lecture on it. Make that a scene in your story, using either your “inspirational teacher” or another teacher character created just for this scene.

When you’re done, you should understand “Write what you know.” Maybe you could even write a story about an aspiring writer learning to draw from the inner well of what he or she knows.


  1. So, this sorta leads into character development, huh? I'd like to see a full post on that, too.

  2. Ahhh, I believe I have one in the plans, Aidana.

    Thanks for your article, Holly. A good one, as usual.

  3. This can be painful for some, especially when remembering those 6th-8th grade years. LOL!

  4. I can understand that, Rena. Mine were miserable.

  5. So were mine. 8th was so awful, in fact, that I did one week of it, went home, and told my parents if I had to do a whole year of that, I'd sneak away from the bus stop, go down to the sea wall, and string puka shell necklaces to sell to the tourists.

    They sent me to the local Catholic school, where the nuns took pity on me and quietly slipped me into 9th grade. Much better.

    But miserable moments often make the best fodder for stories. And strong emotions tend to cement the memories (this is a scientifically proven FACT - that's why little kids go to Disney and remember the ice cream cone falling on the hot asphalt better than they remember shaking hands with one of the Seven Dwarves).

  6. For more on strong emotions and long-term memory formation:

  7. So much for writer's block thanks to your super blog, Holly. Good thoughts.

  8. Thanks, Janet! I really hope that someone reading this will try the exercise and share the resulting story.

  9. Like I have much time for writing exercises. I do well to squeeze the writing I know I need to do in between every thing else. Wish I could though. Bet I could knock your socks off. Yep.