Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Remember how fun it was to play at the new playground rather than the same old one with familiar equipment just down the street? Exploring new subject matter has that same magic.

We hear it often. Write what you know. If you’re a mountain climber, write about your most harrowing experience when you barely made it back. If you’re a writer, write about writing. If your hobby is collecting gems. . .You’ve got the idea.

We try it with our first books, and if we take that advice too literally we fail to sell what we’ve slaved over. What we know may be dull to others, unbelievable, or something we’re too close to see its weaknesses.

What we know may be boring for us to write about. Readers will pick up on that and yawn right along with us. For about two pages. If we’re lucky.

Often it’s easy to fall into self-righteousness when writing about what we’ve lived through. These are often first books, purging, or screaming out to others what we’ve seen, our views and feelings about it, and worse, how the reader should view it. When conveying a message takes precedence over telling a story, it slaps the reader in the face with a lesson he didn’t ask to learn. These tomes end up in drawers, in most cases, because we’ve taken WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW too literally.

Maybe it takes that proverbial million words to spit out enough of what you know to become ready to WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW.

I’ve got a million words plus in drawers, stacked on bookshelves, and hidden in file cabinets. All stories I knew too well. But there came a time when I realized I wanted to write out of curiosity.

I stretched, took a deep breath, and stepped out of my comfort zone. I read and wrote in new genres. I had gone through poetry, short stories, literary cookbooks, and novels unsatisfied. If a producer hadn’t suggested that I turn a novel I was writing into a screenplay, I might never have chanced upon my passion for writing film scripts. Straying from my usual territory increased my confidence and success. 2012 to the present I’ve been delving into the challenging art of ghostwriting and I’m ½ way into a suspense novel.

Initially it seemed like a daunting task to take up a new genre and subject matters foreign to me, but it turned out to be as simple as thinking of a topic I’d like to know more about. Then research. As I learned more, the excitement over my work grew. My projects have been much more rewarding and fun since I divorced myself from topics and themes I was already familiar with.

The world is so full of incredibly interesting people, places, philosophies, happenings. Preparing to write my novels and screenplays, I’ve delved into the world of Freemasons, menopausal women, oppressed hunger strikers in China, Gaulic Druids, people living along the Yangtze River, social isolates, and the Knights Templar and their demise. I know more about Chartres Cathedral, Chinese mythology, cryogenics, crisis centers, color-blindness, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the workings of university campus police, food styling, agoraphobia, and life in a state mental hospital.

If you WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW your life will be enriched, not only by what you learn while wearing out your library card or irritating your eyes wandering the Internet. It may lead to opportunities to meet people with expertise in your subject, call for a tax-deductible trip, require soaking up a new type of music. Basically you grow in experience and as a person. In the process of discovery, you learn about yourself and will inspire your reader to learn about herself. After you’ve embraced other subjects, come back to what you know and you will see it through fresh eyes and with enough distance to do it justice.

There are writers who can create best sellers relying solely on what they already know. They have lived such interesting lives that digging up fanciful details and adding creative twists is unnecessary. Think memoir.

The rest of us can also build a world full of fascinating characters, locales, actions, and dialogue. All we need to do is succumb to the passion of trying out a new playground, answering questions about what we don’t know but would like to know.

Words from the seesaw --- Inkpot



  1. Oh, I love writing what I want to know. :) Doing the research, playing around with different scenarios, spinning it into a story... Just like that shiny new playground. Reading books that tell me something new is fun, too. Thanks, Karen, for sharing this perspective. Great post!

  2. I keep branching out...but my branches seem to keep breaking....

    Good to see something posted here, again, Inky! Great post! :-]

  3. Nice post, Inky. I love the research part of writing. My frustration is learning really cool stuff that I fit into the plot!

  4. Sometimes you stumble into things you don't know. Like when I was researching the world's larges pearl, I learned about the Philippines' during World War II and the horrors the Japanese inflicted on the people. Pearl Harbor was miniscual in comparison but got all the press. I think writing has made me a smarter person. Thanks for this post, Karen. (I love writing screenplays too)

  5. "Write what you know" has always annoyed me when I hear it. I have never lived in the 19th century, traveled through time, committed murder, been a man, a doctor, a pilot, a veterinarian, a miner, or a saloon keeper--at least not in this lifetime. We write fiction. That means we write what our characters know, and it's our job to follow their lead. If that means we do research, that makes it even better. :)

  6. Thanks, Karen, for debunking a writing myth. When I think of some of the books I've read, it would be really scary to think the author was writing from personal experience - ha ha!
    Catherine Dilts

  7. It was just a few weeks ago that I was talking to a group of women at a function about writing and I related how I was given the "write what you know" piece of advice early in my career. My initial response was, "what about sci-fi and fantasy, historical novels etc?" I tweeted soon after that writers should also write "what they want to know" (your words Karen). Writers should seek answers for the questions they have. Writers are adventurers.