Write What You Know? Not Always!

Greetings, SE’ers! Beem Weeks here with you again. Today, I am going to share some brief thoughts on writing those things in which the author may not believe—or even agree with.

Woman with question mark on blackboard

Can we, as authors, write about those things in which we don’t believe? I honestly never gave much thought to such a notion—until a young woman questioned me about the subject of reincarnation. For the record, I do not believe we will come back into this world as another person or animal or insect or tree after we die.

So, what exactly prompted such a line of questioning? The woman asking had recently read a story I wrote entitled The Distance. It’s a short piece of fiction about a middle-aged man named Richard Metzger coming face to face with a blond-headed five-year-old boy who may or may not be the reincarnation of his younger brother. I left the story open-ended, allowing the readers to form their own opinions as to whether the boy is indeed Richard’s late brother or not.

As writers, we’re all familiar with Mark Twain’s call to Write what you know. I’ve written many stories over the years—some going back decades. I can recall the origins of most of my creations. I remember the germination of The Distance as if I wrote it yesterday. But to claim I’ve only written what I know, well, that would be a lie. I know next to nothing about most of the subjects on which I’ve written. This is where research becomes vital to us writers.

Confused bearded young man standing and shrugging his shoulders

Back to my original question. Can we, as authors, write about those things in which we don’t believe? The answer is a resounding yes! An atheist can write an intelligent and thought-provoking story of a character with great faith in a Higher Power. A warm and sensitive soul can create dark and sinister characters and stories that might curl the toes of his or her readers.

I have my own set of beliefs. These have evolved over the course of my life—I owe that to spiritual growth and hard-learned lessons. However, my stories are not bound by these beliefs. I can—and do—write stories and create characters that do not fit into my own system of beliefs.  

Murder mysteries aren’t created by psychopaths who secretly yearn to kill—at least I hope not. I’ve yet to meet a genuine time traveler—as far as I know—but I’ve enjoyed many stories crafted around that very subject. Do those authors really believe time travel is possible? Can they see beyond the myriad obstacles involved such an undertaking? Some do, others don’t. It doesn’t really matter when creating a tale of fiction.

Writers must rely on more than simple research of a subject. Writers must possess a fluid imagination capable of considering even the darkest of characters or the wildest stretching of reality. When we breach our comfort zone, we often find our best work. So, unshackle your imagination and consider new ideas.  

SEBioBox_Beem copy (1)

98 thoughts on “Write What You Know? Not Always!

  1. Pingback: Write What You Know? Not Always! – Productionsales

  2. Pingback: Write What You Know? Not Always! – SarahsHeart Clinic

  3. The human imagination knows no bounds and what you’ve said here rings true with that. Authors who write fantasy are great examples. I love reading about worlds and circumstances that don’t exist in our so-called normal world. Research cannot be overstated! Great piece, Beem!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Love this post, Beem. If I only wrote what I know my books would be extremely wearisome. I love researching about things I don’t know. As Robbie pointed out, research is much easier these days than it was in Mark Twain’s time.

    Interesting that you mentioned reincarnation and time travel. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of time travel and wrote a short story a few years back where a character traveled back in time to the World War II era. Talk about fun with research for that one! Recently, I wrote another short story (yet to be published) where a character was possibly reincarnated. Do I believe in either time travel or reincarnation? No, but both are sure fun to write about.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Great question, Beem, and post 🙂 I write about things I believe in and write from a killer’s perspective, which I have not been exposed to. My characters may have completely different beliefs than mine because that is necessary to the story. That is when research comes in handy. I am not my characters even if they have inherited some of my characteristics. I do explore my beliefs in stories and other’s beliefs too.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I love your line: My characters may have completely different beliefs than mine because that is necessary to the story.

      That says a lot in one small sentence, Denise. As writers, we write what is necessary to the story. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: GRACE (2018) Brief Movie Review – priorhouse blog

  7. Beem, your post is spot on!

    I often get asked about my beliefs because of the types of stories I write. Most are ghost fiction or involve mediums, haunted houses, and the like. Yet, I would never set foot in a suspected haunted house, attend a ghost walk, participate in a seance, or a psychic reading. That usually shocks people when the truth comes out. But I do enjoy the what if” possibilities those things conjure and like exploring them in stories.

    I also love folklore and monster legends and can happily spend days immersed in research.

    Liked by 4 people

    • The “what if” is what matters most to me. I don’t have to believe in the subject at hand. If it fits the story and moves it forward, that’s all I need. I’m with you, Mae. I would never participate in a seance or psychic reading. But I sure have no problem creating characters who would. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I think, at least for fiction writers, testing the bounds of our imagination is the thing that draws us to storytelling. We want to escape reality and we can’t do that if we only write about what we know.
    Great post, Beem.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Thought provoking post, Beem. Here’s another take. We can only write what our brain knows. The theme of your post is something I have pondered and read about for many years. Whatever world we create for our writing is based on experiences and information we store in our memory. The brain cannot create something it has no knowledge of, only a concept based on a lived experience. I would include reading about another’s lived experience as part of this. That is probably why research is a vital part of writing. I’m not offering this thought as an authority but to gauge what you and other writers think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am in agreement, Davy. Research is vital to anything a writer creates outside of his or her own experiences. We must also have a rich imagination for those worlds that do not exist. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I expect our brains know a lot that doesn’t come from personal experience, Davy – like reading books, watching documentaries…
      How often have you watched a quiz show on TV – if you do – answered a question correctly, and then been unable to explain hoe you knew.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Great post, Beem. Other than my memoir, the worlds I create are not ones I know. The military thrillers required much research, but I’ve never been on an active military base. I’ve only visited decommissioned bases and used my imagination. The writing process opens our world to realms we may not have considered before, and that makes writing an extraordinary gift — which you’ve captured beautifully. Bravo!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your insight, Gwen. Your military thrillers are a perfect example. Your research and imagination bring those tales to vivid reality on the pages. Thank you for sharing.

      Like

  11. Enjoyed your post and all of the comments that go with it. I’m sort of with Craig’s opinion. Our imagination can take us anywhere, but the things that ground a story–like emotions–are what I consider “write what you know.”

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I find research fascinating, therefore, I write what I have learned. Do I include what I know in my stories? Of course, that is a good starting point. it gives me a base from which to create the unknown, what I have found. I believe you need a mix of both to grow. There are times I have more research accumulated than what I actually have written in my WIP.

    Learning something new helps us grow as authors, and my preferred genre is suspense, thriller. I even love horror when written well.

    Loved the post, Beem.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for adding to the discussion, Michele. I love research for the learning as much as for the stories I write. I’ve also accumulated much more material than needed at times. But it’s always there–should I need it for another story.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I like the way Staci stated it – “write what you want to know”. If I only wrote about what i know, it would be a pretty small slice of the pie to choose from. It’s the “otherworldly” that fascinates me, so that’s what I choose to write about. And occasionally get lost down rabbit holes because of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I loved your thought expressed by this sentence, “Writers must possess a fluid imagination capable of considering even the darkest of characters or the wildest stretching of reality.” I totally agree with your premise and try to stretch the boundaries whenever possible. Super post, Beem.

    Liked by 3 people

      • ☀️😊📚
        I also didn’t know The origin of that write what you know quote!
        And maybe I would say “write what your passionate about or interested in because the energy and essence will trickle into your work and the reader will feel that”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh and one more thing
        The note about how we do research was great!
        And not sure if you saw the movie “Grace” (2018 Amazon Prime) well it has a nice little scene in there where the troubled author explains why he has so many books – for future research for book ideas!!
        Ah! It made me feel better about the remaining books I feel clingy with-//
        The movie has a few not-so-great parts but I really liked so much of it

        Liked by 1 person

  15. If writers only wrote what they knew, fantasy novels wouldn’t exist at all because by definition, it doesn’t exist. We use what we know and where our imagination takes us to create incredible stories. Great post, Beem! 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  16. I can’t remember where I saw it, but someone changed “write what you know” to “write what you want to know.” I’ve always taken that to heart. I’m interested in many things but haven’t formally studied most of them. But I love research, and I use that love to inform the stories I want to tell. I’ve written about secret societies, alchemy-granted superpowers, grisly serial killers, time travel, centuries old demons, aliens and ancient artifacts, medical oddities, military expertise… I haven’t lived these things. But they interested me, so I learned what I needed to know to write the stories I wanted to tell. I love this post because it speaks to an issue I’m passionate about. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Liked by 8 people

    • Wow! You’ve got some doozies for subject matter, Staci. I am a huge fan of research. I love discovering what I previously didn’t know. And I love writing the dark stuff as much as the uplifting. I never understood Twain’s “write what you know”, but I prefer the “write what you want to know” line you’ve shared. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I think writing only what we know can box us in and stifle creativity. I enjoy writing about places I’ve never visited as it gives me a good excuse to watch interesting YouTube videos. 🙂 I just have to be careful not to get sucked down into the rabbit hole. Interesting thoughts, Beem!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Jill. I do a lot of YouTube watching for some of my story ideas. Research today is easier than in the past. Sometimes even the rabbit holes can relinquish interesting angles we’ve not considered.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I’m glad you raised this, Beem. I wrote about a slave in Roman Britain, and a young Viking girl in Britain, too. I have no idea what it was like to live in those times, only my research.
    Writing what you know will fix writing to modern times only, and the society in which you live. There would be no science fiction, no historical fiction, no murder mysteries, no fantasy, no dystopian novels (imagine no 1984 or Brave New World, classics of that genre), and many more.
    Thank you for a sensible take on this.

    Liked by 3 people

  19. Hi Beem

    The consensus so far seems to be we can, and should, write about what we don’t know, or, more importantly, believe.
    My first few books were steamy romance – few complaints about content. Next, I tried closed-door romance. So many people, fortunately not all in Amazon reviews, then criticised characters’ use of mild bad language; it went against their Christian principles to read it. So, there was a market for Christian romantic suspense, but am I Christian? In as much as I was christened and confirmed, yes, but I had, and still have, doubts. However, I rewrote all three books and they sell, mainly in America. I also write crime thrillers, and I am not 1) a closet serial killer 2) ex-police in any capacity, 3) a drug dealer – murderer… thief… You get the picture. What I do have, other than Internet resources already mentioned, are friends. Most of them I’ve never met, but they are incredibly generous with information. I think we all are, so if anybody has questions about the inside story of London’s West End theatres feel free to email. authorsarahstuart@gmail.com and I’ll do my best to answer.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You hold a wonderful take on this subject, Sarah. Though my stories are not rife with cuss words, my characters tend to drop a few here and there. I am a Christian. My study of the scriptures has been ongoing for more than 25 years (and I’m still learning). So, imagine when one of my characters drops an f-bomb. I’ve heard about it. “Can’t you have them sound mean without swearing?” a person once asked me. Well, no. That would render my characters fake. A gangster or a drunk or a murderer will use harsh language–and, often, commit harsher actions. It’s reality. I write stories that I hope come off as authentic. Though I am firm in my faith, I’m not writing for a particular audience. I’ve even told those within my church that my work is secular. I’m not preaching a message in these stories–though many of my characters find redemption. I’m merely entertaining my readers. In reality, people cuss, they smoke cigarettes, they do drugs, they engage in sex, they lie, they cheat, they steal, and they kill–just as they did in the Bible. It’s part of the human experience. As the Bible clearly tells us, we are all sinners. Well, so are my characters. Thank you for opening a new line of dialogue on the subject, Sarah.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Pingback: Write What You Know? Not Always! | Legends of Windemere

  21. I also write a lot about what I don’t believe in or know much of. That’s where research comes into play for me. If I don’t research when writing something, it doesn’t really feel right.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Hi Beem, an interesting debate. I find it easier to write about places I have actually visited and have a feel for but I am currently writing a novel set in Orange, New Jersey and I’ve never been to America. I am getting feedback on American language and other things from American Beta readers. I am cognisant of the fact that at the time Mark Twain wrote his novels, research would have been a lot more difficult for everyone than it is now. I think with so much information available at the other end of a Google search including on-line video tours, we are empower to write things we didn’t know. All my books and stories include things I don’t know like exorcisms, and Ouija Boards

    Liked by 8 people

    • This is interesting. I’ve travelled a lot and usually use places I’ve visited, including the USA. However, there’s a vast difference between writing, as I often have, based on visits and research, and creating American characters. I’m indebted to Linda Watkins, USA Today best-selling author, for her input into one of my books that involved two English teenagers who’d lived in California most of their lives. Another friend I’ve never actually met. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

    • You bring up some fantastic points, Robbie. I’ve written one short story set in a town with which I’m familiar. I’ve never thought about the fact that 99% of my stories are set in towns or states or countries I’ve never visited. Even American English differs from region to region. One must consider accents and dialects unique to certain areas. You are so correct that research in Twain’s era would have been laborious, and, in some cases, impossible. We are fortunate to be writing in this era. Thank you for visiting today.

      Liked by 1 person

We'd love to know what you think. Comment below.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s