Monday, July 13, 2009

Why not write about what you DON'T know?

Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien had adhered to the advice: "Write about what you know"? There would be no Middle Earth, no hobbits, no Gandalf... Not only would an entire genre of literature fail to exist, but I'd bet my eye teeth many of the great books we know today would never have been written.

Really, who spawned this suffocating notion that we must first be experts in a given field to write about it? Perhaps the better advice would be to write about what fires your imagination and what you're so passionate about that you could bury yourself up to your elbows in reference material for days on end?

I've been asked many times why I write about medieval times or certain figures like Robert the Bruce, Owain Glyndwr, Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer. The seed of my fascination began with a childhood spent reading Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers and a plethora of Jean Plaidy books. But spare time for reading died with college and children.

Then, I saw the movie Braveheart. Yeah, yeah, yeah - you historical accuracy purists who so readily decry its inaccuracies may clamber down from your soapboxes for a moment. Truth is, I had never even heard of William Wallace before then. Never. And I only had an inkling who Robert the Bruce was. Yet because of that Hollywood-ized version of a historical era, I was so inspired I wanted to learn more. It re-ignited my love for history and reading and a dream I'd had since I was 12 - to write. Not about something I knew, but something which inspired me: the struggle for freedom, the weak overcoming the strong, hope, persistence, loyalty --- all of it lying in wait in history's chronicles and waiting to be told to new generations.

The fun part about being a writer is that you learn so much in the process. And when that research shows, so will your readers!

Until later,


Anne Gilbert said...


First off, I'm glad you found out who William Wallace was, by one means or another, even if it was the execrable(IMO)Braveheart. By the time the film came out, I'd long heard the name, at least, and knew vaguely that he fought the English.Hint: I'd managed to read a few books. I'm glad you did! New knowledge is always useful!

But I agree with you wholeheartedly about the "write what you know" stuff! This is usually(at least it was in my experience) drilled into kids in high school English classes, by earnest teachers who want to turn them on to "serious" literature. And it's deadly. More importantly, it tends to discourage young people, at a time when they are exploring parts of themselves, from writing at all! I would say, however, that "write what you know" can be applied, in the sense that writers almost always have apects of their life experiences written into their books, one way or another. This is true even for fantasy writers like Tolkien. If you consider how heavily he borrowed from the Old English and medieval literature he studied, and (unconsciously) applied it to Lord of the Rings, you will understand what I mean. For another example, I have a writing partner/friend who is writing a fantasy, but it's a sort of fantasy reflection of the small town she grew up in. It's quite interesting, in a way, and in a way, reflects her own experiences. I could go on, but I think you can see what I mean here. It is not, definitely not, what English teachers and (some) creative wring instructors tell their students to do!
Anne TG

Anita Davison said...

My current wip is on the advice of my agent to make me 'fit' the market. I admit I was leery at first, but she left me to come up with the subject and how I was going to tackle it. I walked round in a 'How do I do This?' fuzz for weeks, but the more research I do, the more she appeals and now I want to tell her story

N. Gemini Sasson said...

Anne - I agree about a lot of English teachers repeating the "Write about what you know". Sadly, that probably stifles a lot of young writers. Imagination and the passion to learn about what one doesn't yet know can overcome a dearth of knowledge.

As for Braveheart and the likes, I think we have to keep in mind it was a Hollywood film, primarily meant to entertain, and not a documentary.

Anne Gilbert said...


Just to be clear, my point with Braveheart was, that I am glad it inspired you to learn more about William Wallace. I knew it was "Hollywood fluff" when I saw it, but that's another story, as I said.

BTW, if you're interested in reading it and have the time,I expanded on the "write what you know" question that I answered here, on my blog, The Writer's Daily Grind, at:

I also put your blog on my blogroll!
Anne G

Jen Black said...

The sad thing about Braveheart is that so many people seem to take it as truth. As fot the other point in your blog - write about what you know - that put me off trying for the longest time. I thought I'd wait until I'd lived a bit, and knew a thing or two. Now I wish I'd started years ago! and I think the rule should be make sure you know what you write about. Otherwise we'd all be murderers before we could write a thriller, wouldn't we?

Anne Gilbert said...

I certainly was "put off" for years and years from writing, because of "advice" like this. My hair had turned gray before I actually sat down and set pen to paper(or more accurately, sat myself down in front of a computer and uploaded).
Anne G

Jack Ramsay said...

Hi Gemi,

Couldn't agree more. We'd never get anything written if we constantly had to jump on planes or spacecraft so that we could accurately describe the small of the grass in Tuscany or the feeling of freezing to death on the dark side of the moon. Imagination must come into play - we're writers, after all - and as long as we're convincing and credible in what we write, a little license goes a long way.

Anne Gilbert said...

Everyone seems to be saying pretty much the same thing. I'm only sorry I didn't dump this well-meant but erroneous advice a lot sooner than I did. I waited till my hair turned gray before I had the confidence(and then not much), to sit down and actually start writing!