Friday, September 5, 2014

Writing what you want to know

Posted by: Sonya Clark
"Write what  you know" is some of the most frequently quoted writing advice, and it's also frequently misunderstood. I've seen a lot of discussion about how literal a writer should be with this advice, which always surprises me. John Grisham may have been a lawyer before he started writing legal thrillers, but he's probably in the minority for writing about his profession. Plenty of writers have boring day jobs, or an oddball series of jobs on their resume. Even before I finished my first novel, I thought writing what you know meant writing from a place of emotional truth. That it had nothing to do with the literal circumstances of my life, or any writer's life. That would be incredibly restricting, and that's not what fiction is all about.

I've written twelve books now. Some have been published, some not. As I start on manuscript number thirteen, I've decided not to write what I know anymore. I want to try something a little different: I'm going to write what I want to know.

We write for a lot of reasons. To tell stories and to share them through publication are just two reasons. Another is discovery. Exploration. To find answers to questions. My new manuscript is built around this question: how far into darkness can a person venture and still find their way back, still find redemption? The story will still be dressed up in pretty paranormal metaphors (witchcraft, alchemy, vampires). And it will have a steamy romance, because what's not to love about steamy romance? ;) But this time the emotional question at the core of the story is one I don't have an answer for from my own experience. I'm a little nervous about this, mostly because I have a feeling these characters will wind up in some very dark places. But I am excited to be changing how I approach a story, and writing what I want to know instead of what I already know.

A question for my fellow writers: Do you write what you know, or what you want to know?


Sonya Clark is the author of the magic-meets-cyberpunk Magic Born trilogy, Trancehack, Witchlight, and the forthcoming Firewall. Learn more at


  1. A bit of both. A portion of the stuff I know part is literal and a portion is emotional, and other emotional and literal components are unknowns to me. I like to explore and find the unknown aspects of stuff I think I already know, too...and the unexpected familiarity of certain principles in something unknown.

    1. I started out writing what I know because I had to - I didn't know what I was doing with regard to writing, so I had to have some familiarity with something to keep me going. I'm still not sure if I know what I'm doing, writing-wise, but I felt ready to explore stuff I didn't know, since exploring the stuff I thought I knew taught me so much.

  2. I've always assumed this advice was meant literally--and it's a rule I've frequently broken, as it is too restricting.

    I ran across an interesting blog by Patricia Brigg's husband Mike on this topic. Apparently, Patty's next Alpha and Omega novel is going to have to do with horses--which is a subject Patty knows a lot about. And it's gumming up her first draft because she keeps putting in TOO MUCH detail instead of just what's needed for the story.

    1. Hee, I totally understand that. I'm a bit of a music nerd/music history buff, so it's not unusual for there to be at least one character in my stories that's big on music, too. I wind up having to cut totally unnecessary ruminations on Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and the spiritual crossroads of blues and country. Sometimes it's way too much fun to write what you know! :-)

  3. "Write what you know" is easy for fantasy, because the entire world is coming from your own head. ;-) But readers need at least some parallels to their own world to keep from getting lost, even if those parallels are sometimes out of phase.

    Funny you talk about the idea of redemption from a long way down; I'm also writing a story along those lines. In one of those weird synchronicity cases, recent events have made it a whole lot more relevant. Too bad I'm not done with it and could strike while the iron is hot. :-P


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