Working It Out Release Party—Write What You Know

July 19, 2014

Cover of Working It Out by Kristen Slater

Hi there, it’s Kristen Slater again, with the next instalment of the release party for my novella, Working It Out. Following on from my previous post, I thought I’d give my take on advice that’s given to novice writers everywhere. “Write what you know”.

Yeah, about that. I’m a woman writing about gay men. I’m writing love stories despite never having been in love. I’m middle aged and most of my characters are under 30.

For me, “write what you know” isn’t actually saying you can only write people identical to yourself, in your own situation. It’s really saying that you should bring your experiences to your writing. That when you write about something you don’t know that much about, you should do some research, find out about it. This might involve reading up on the subject, or talking to people, or going somewhere and doing whatever it is.

After all, if “write what you know” really was so narrow, there’d be no science fiction, no fantasy, very few mysteries or thrillers. It’s the basic premise in writing; a writer’s job is to put themselves in someone else’s head, to try to walk in their shoes. It’s a uniquely human gift, that ability to imagine what somebody else is thinking, how they might react to something. We start with how we might respond in a particular situation. We then try to project that onto other people. Even quite young children are encouraged to imagine how someone else feels by asking them “how would you feel if…?”. Usually when they’ve just thumped someone.

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Reading fiction is a way of exploring the world. It can give us clues about how we should behave, show us worlds other than the one we live in, a wider range of people than the ones we meet every day. It has always been my favourite thing to do. The escape into another life, another place, another time is irresistible. And all that fiction has been written by people who take what they know and apply it to other situations.

So when I write about men, I focus on the things that are the same. They grew up in the same country as me, with a lot of the same cultural influences and values. That whole men and women are from different planets thing? Codswallop. Absolute piffle. We’re from the same planet. We want the same things out of life, on the whole. Sure, there are some differences in how men and women process experience and emotions. So I have to look at what men say about how they relate to each other, how they deal with feelings. That’s the research I mentioned above.

I know about being uncertain how to react to people; I know about being scared to say what I’m feeling (assuming I’m able to articulate it at all). Those things translate to being in love and not knowing if you should tell the other person. They translate to not wanting to make an idiot of yourself in front of someone you like. They translate into not wanting to give them ammunition to hurt you if they turn out to be a heel. Because that’s the same as general social anxiety, just with more at stake.

And hey, to have reached middle age I have to have passed through my twenties, right? So I can remember what it was like, even if some of it’s a bit hazy now. The pressure to conform to a perceived norm, the slightly scary feeling of being out there on your own now, responsible for your own life, the gradual change to knowing who you are and what you want.

All of those things, and more, feed into what I write. It’s what writers do.

What do you think? Should writers stick rigidly to what they already know, or is it about taking their thoughts and experiences and translating them to new situations? Comment for a chance to win your very own copy of Working It Out.


Celebrating six months with his boyfriend has Cas in a bit of a panic. Joe’s been saying “I love you” for a while, but Cas just can’t get the words past his lips. A week before Christmas, he finally says them when a nearly fatal accident almost takes Joe, and Cas faces the possibility of losing the best man he’s ever known. But whispered declarations are one thing. Through a long, tough recovery both men must work out that love is more than words.

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12 Responses to “Working It Out Release Party—Write What You Know”

  1. it’s a hard thing to know what and where to diverge from personal experience into the what if and how do I think that would feel part of writing.

  2. Susan says:

    I admire writers who don’t just write characters similar to themselves. Taking what they know and extrapolating, whether to another gender or another species, it’s all about some risk-taking.

  3. Deborah H says:

    No they shouldn’t. Because there are a lot of womenwho write great m/m romances.

  4. JenCW says:

    I think that there is something comfortable in writing what you know, but there are plenty of well written books that say that a person who researches well can write a book on anything. I know of an author who wrote a book set in Las Vegas that routinely is asked by people who live there where she lives in the city…but she’s never even visited the city herself. That takes a lot of time and research. I’m good either way as long as the book is well written.

  5. Kristen says:

    Ashavan, yes, I think that is the difficult bit. Knowing where the line is between using your experience to fire your imagination and simply regurgitating your own life and opinions.

  6. Kristen says:

    Susan, that’s how I see it. I’m a big fan of science fiction, and noe of those authors had experienced many of the things they wrote about.

  7. Kristen says:

    Deborah, and also men who write great female characters, adults who write about children. I feel sad when I see people taking the advice in that very literal way and saying “x therefore shouldn’t write about y”.

  8. Kristen says:

    Jen, indeed, I feel comfortable setting things in offices because I don’t have to do too much research about what happens there. I heard about that Las Vegas story, and around two or three years ago there was a prize-winning book set in Canada written by someone who’d never been there. I agree that if the book’s well researched and written it’s going to grip you, whatever the writer’s background or experience.

  9. H.B. says:

    I think it’s wonderful for authors to try to expand outside what they know. Not everyone experiences the same thing so taking a situation you can’t ever experience (fantasy, sci-fi stuff, etc) or have heard through another person and twisting it really can be a bit of a learning experience for a reader that hasn’t seen or experienced those situations. It also opens up the mind to how things don’t always have to fit into a certain mold or perception.

  10. Sula says:

    I love it when an author can create their own world, or a dystopia version of Earth or steampunk, as then you can change history and interpret things how you want, so if any one challenges you can say ‘Ah that may be so, but it does happen like that in my Victorian England, the Queen was run by steam power…lol

    Just think of all those books that would never have been written if that philosophy was followed: Beatrix Potter – did she have talking rabbits and ducks? Did Stephen King know a girl who used telekinetic powers to burn down a school? Did JR Rowling know about a wizards school called Hogwarts and there are probably hundreds and hundreds more examples I could think of.

  11. Trix says:

    I believe in a bit of both! I think situations should be plausible (and real-world applications are great for that), but I’m always delighted and impressed by great world-building!

  12. Kristen says:

    I realise I didn’t reply to these last 2 or 3 comments here. I’m glad to see that I’m not on a different page from everyone else. It’s been wonderful seeing people’s replies to my questions.

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