Writer’s advice: Write what you know

Write what you know. Write what you want to know more about. Write what you’re afraid about. Cec Murphy

I read this quote on a post on the ‘Write to Done’ blog and found it to be extremely pertinent. As a beginner you’re always told ‘write what you know’ and this is excellent advice. Writing about something you know well – whether it’s a period of history or the inner workings of a City bank – gives your writing an authenticity, and makes the reader feel they’re really seeing, hearing or feeling what the characters see, hear and feel. As a former journalist I’m somewhat lucky to have experienced a number of different scenarios and it will come as no surprise that my first novel has a journalist as its main character. During my seven years in the business I’ve seen the inside of a court room, witnessed inquests, dealt with police and fire investigations and interviewed grieving families/friends. So, as a wannabe crime writer this gives me a little bit of a head start.

But not all crime writers are former journalists and this is where Cec Murphy’s second point comes in. Anything you need to known to help your writing/story can be learned through research. I can say with some confidence that Philippa Gregory has never lived in Tudor England, but thanks to hours spent poring over excellent source material she is able to create an atmosphere which transports the reader straight to the muddy, smelly streets of that world.  So, find something you want to learn about and get started. Your knowledge of the subject will be transmitted through your writing to your reader and they’ll be drawn into the story without realising it. The better your research is, the better the atmosphere and setting will be. But one word of warning, don’t just dump all the stuff you’ve learned into the story. Weave it in gradually through your setting and plot and the reader will be hooked.

Murphy’s third point is perhaps the most interesting. Have you ever read a scene and found it left you feeling nothing? This usually means the writer hasn’t felt much while writing the scene. Don’t be afraid to use your own emotion in your writing. If you frighten yourself with what you’re writing, chances are your reader will feel it too. Anything that gets the reader feeling an emotion – other than boredom – is a good thing. It makes them more likely to continue reading and hopefully buy your next book too! To me, the difference between good and mediocre writing is that ability to feel an emotion and to share it.

I’d like to be cheeky and add another line to Cec’s quote – write what you’re interested in. For years as a teenager I tried to write romantic fiction, because that was mostly what was available for teenage girls to read at the time (remember Sweet Valley High?). But no matter how hard I tried, my characters were flat and my plotlines were predictable. It wasn’t until I discovered crime fiction – through Agatha Christie and a great teen series ‘Point Crime’ – that I began to feel comfortable and develop my writing. You’ll also find that getting your bum into your writing chair is also much easier when you’re interested in what you’re writing. Writing is like training at a sport – it’s a long, arduous process and it’s a lot easier if you’re doing a sport you like.

So, pick your subject, get your bum in the chair and start writing! Good luck!

How do you choose what you’re going to write about? Do you enjoy researching? Do you find it helps your writing? I’d love to hear your stories, so comment below.

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3 thoughts on “Writer’s advice: Write what you know

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  1. Isn’t this a bit odd for advice though? If we can imagine it, we know it to some extent. Did A. Dumas know what it was like to be imprisoned for many years? Did J. Conrad really go up the Congo? I say write what you can only dream about.

    1. Hi Trent, thanks very much for your comment. I think this advice works very well for writers when they first start out as it gives you confidence to write about a subject you feel comfortable with. However, you’re completely right that writers should use their imagination as well. If writers didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have great dystopian works like Nineteen Eighty Four.
      That said, I think if you’re planning to write about a setting or role that other people have knowledge of, then you need that knowledge too (either through experience or research) to be able to write in a believeable way. Thanks for the feedback, it’s a very interesting point!

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