Writing What You Know When There’s No Way to “Know” It

This article is by Selah Janel.

magic bookIf there’s one piece of advice I’ve heard from the time I was in high school until now, it’s “write what you know.” This used to bug me as a teen because I felt that my life hadn’t even started yet, so how was I supposed to write anything interesting?

It also seems to directly contradict the entire reality of writing genre fiction. How can you write what you know if you can’t live in impossible worlds, use magic, or go up against fantastic creatures? There’s absolutely no way this advice can be applicable if you write fantasy or any fantasy subgenre, right?

You’d be surprised.

Is the story set in the real world?

If you’re writing urban fantasy or something set in the “real” world, there needs to be a reason for the location. Is the countryside going to ramp up the tension because your characters will be isolated? Are there strange goings on under the surface of the city? Are you using suburban life to emphasize the “normalness” of your main character vs. the spectacular things that happen to them later on? No matter what you choose, there has to be a reason for it.

The details of a city are much different than the specific quirks of living in the country or the ‘burbs. If your character has lived there his or her whole life, they need to read like they’ve lived there. Don’t knock the places you might perceive as boring. Not all urban fantasy has to be set in New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, New York, or Los Angeles. If you choose a specific location, know its quirks. Visit and do some research. Not only will you get basic information, but by immersing yourself in the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells you will add to your descriptions. You may even stumble upon something specific that may nudge your plot in places you wouldn’t have anticipated otherwise.

A while ago I wrote a short story for a magazine that was an eldergod variation on The Little Mermaid. I wanted something to up the stakes, and I remembered a historical house I used to visit when I’d lived in Southern Indiana as a kid. Those memories led to researching it, which led to studying the time period, which gave me some economic information that I could feed directly into the plot and up the stakes.

If your story isn’t set in the real world, can you draw from real world places to add realism?

Think of this like location scouting for a movie. You can glean characteristics of architecture, mountains, natural wonders, agriculture, and other possibilities with some research. You may not have the means to physically go around the world and visit these places, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go looking for articles, documentaries, or stories from other people’s trips.

This isn’t limited to locations. An article about komodo dragons may give you inspiration for a new type of fantasy creature. An episode of Nova might give you an idea for a new type of magic or technology. Can you go to a living village and use what you see to represent the daily life of the world you’re writing? Using every bit of the resources around you will give you more to work with.

Do you understand the science, history, or logistics of everything involved enough to make things make sense?

It isn’t enough to just get inspired by something you see in the news or read in an article. You don’t have to be an expert, but you need a basic idea of how things work. I can guarantee you that Michael Crichton was never chased around by dinosaurs. While the science isn’t completely sound, his reasoning behind the events in Jurassic Park makes sense for the story. It makes you believe that it’s possible. You have to study things enough to know what aspects you can use and what you can leave behind to further the story.

Examples in fantasy would be weaponry, horse riding, and other skills that not everyone has, but think they can write. I don’t care how generic you think you can make it, try to find a way to research how certain weapons are used and why they’re used in certain situations. Pick up an actual sword and feel how heavy it is. Get on a horse if at all possible. If you need to know about shipbuilding, find a source for that and try some wood carving while you’re at it. Putting yourself through part of the experience, no matter how minimal, gives you little details to play with that you won’t always get from a book or online.

What skills do you know that would fit into the world you’re writing?

You may not think that things you know can be used in a fantasy title. Instead of moaning about the fact that you want to write about warlords but you’ve spent your whole life cooking, why not refocus to write about a cook who has adventures in a fantasy land? What can your professions, hobbies, and education bring to the table? I’ve drawn upon my past experience as a classical vocalist, working in theatre, a brief time working fast food, doing admin work, sewing, and crafting, to add to my characters and worlds. Those may be my comfort zones, but they’re things I know will make my fiction realistic.

You may not want to make your story all about your profession, even if there is a way to angle it for the fantasy genre. What things are you familiar with that may lend certain credibility to different scenes? Do you work with leather? What character in your work may have that experience? Are you a teacher? Is there a mage or tutor that you could pour your experiences or frustrations into? What do you know that could draw the reader in and really make that scene sing?

Do you know people who can help you?

You may not have experienced the same occupation or life events that your characters have, but it’s very likely someone you know or a friend of a friend has. I try to learn from everyone and anyone around me. I once picked the brain of every musician and performer I had in my address book for help writing the characters in a band. You have to be tactful, especially if you want information about a hard life experience like a terminal disease, addiction, or life-changing injury. It’s still important to try to find information, especially if there’s a person in your area with experience. There are little things you might not even think about that could help your manuscript.

Andrew Davidson did a ton of research for The Gargoyle, and it shows. If you look at the acknowledgements, he talked to many people to gather information about burn victims, legal repercussions of events in the book, and other details no one person is going to know about off the top of their head. Those details draw you in, enhance the horrible events in the beginning, and flesh out the characters.

Even though The Gargoyle is set in the real world, Davidson still could have used a lot of his research if he had been writing fantasy. Burns affect people the same way no matter where they’re at. Stone-cutting isn’t going to change whether you’re doing it in Chicago or some far-off land.

What other things are you an expert at that could lend a feel of believability?

One of the best vampire books I’ve ever read was Lord of the Dead by Tom Holland. It’s about what would happen if Lord Byron was a vampire and, coincidentally enough, Holland is a Byron scholar. It shows. I was insanely impressed with how Holland used many of Byron’s life events, rationalizing that they happened because of the particular quirks of how vampires in his world acted.

If you really, truly know something from top to bottom, stop and think how you could use it. This may bring up a whole different idea than the one you’re currently working on, but it’s a thought process worth pursuing. No matter how quirky or incidental you deem a part of your life, I can guarantee you there’s a way to use it in your writing, even in speculative fiction. It’s all how you slant things.

What are your characters going through?

This is something that’s easily taken for granted. Your life experiences are just as important as anything you study or do. They are part of the package, part of what you know. It can be uncomfortable, but often using your emotions can not only flesh out a scene, but allow you to pour your own feelings into the story. In acting there’s a technique called sense memory where an actor taps into a personal experience and channels it into the scene they’re currently playing. I’m not asking you to go to a place that will make you overly uncomfortable, but remember that emotions play a huge part in what your characters are doing.

Have you lost someone close to you? Have you known real love? What life milestones have you navigated? Even if your personal experiences don’t directly line up with your characters, you can still use them. Loss, anger, joy, exhaustion, frustration, love—these are all universal emotions. It doesn’t matter if your character is a hero facing humongous odds and you might work at a grocery store. At some time in your life, you’ve faced a problem that you had to go through, though it seemed larger than life. How did that make you feel? What did you do to carry on? Questions like these can help you directly channel your characters’ state of mind and give yet another layer to your work.

Be Open

Here’s what people forget when faced with the “write what you know” comment. When you walk down the street, everything around you is what you know. The scent of food from the nearby café is what you know. The people you pass on the street are who you know. Everything that you see and how it makes you feel is what you know. The internal monologue that passes through your mind throughout the day is what you know. Every little thing that makes up your life is what you know. Your family experience, the quirks you were born with, how make your coffee, your friends, the things you do in your spare time, the way you earn your living—those are all important things that you can draw on and morph to fit a fantasy setting. You may not need all of that, but they’re there for you to draw on. They’re all tools in the belt, waiting to be used.

So, with that in mind…

What do you know? What aspects of your life could be used to write a story? What things could mesh up to the fantasy genre or a subgenre of fantasy?

What’s something that you’re sure wouldn’t work at all—if you give it a second or third thought, can you find a way to use it?

About the Author:

Selah Janel is the author of Olde School, Lost in the Shadows, and many others. You can catch up with her meanderings on her blog and connect with her on her Facebook page.

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6 years ago

I don’t think it’s necessary to use my real life experiences for my story. And no, I can’t take a sword or ride a horse – this is real life, not fiction. If I want to write about something in depth, I can always use wikipedia as a source for info. I don’t need to do it myself, I don’t need to put something from my personal life into the story. After all, I’m not writing autobiographical fiction, if autobiography can be fictional at all.

8 years ago

Ah! What a timely article for me to find. I’ve been writing a science fiction story that requires some intense research, and I’ve been nervous that I’m going to get something wrong, since I’m not an expert in the field. Thanks for sharing these tips. Very helpful!

8 years ago

The statement is vague and can leave one stumped for ideas until digging down for details likes this. Thanks for sharing all your ideas. It really helps to get out and experience life in order to write even fantasy.

8 years ago

Thanks for this great article! I am in the process of exploring the world of a fantasy I am working on. Right now it feels like I am writing against a blue screen, but I will find more to flesh out the landscape and all.

Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Reply to  Anne Marie Gazzolo
8 years ago

Thanks Anne Marie! Glad you liked the article! I’m always a little overwhelmed when I start building a world, but focusing on your interests and what appeals to you is often a great way to get yourself an “in” and start filling in some of the blanks.

8 years ago

I’ve always said that if I had to write only about things I had actually experienced, I would never write anything. But I absolutely agree that research counts as experience. I spent a lot of time researching entomology and learning as much as I could about both termites and birds before I created my termite people and my bird peoples. And learning something about physics and astrophysics is essential to creating the convincing fictional physics that is needed to get your ships across the galaxy.

Reply to  Lorinda J. Taylor
8 years ago

Totally agree, Lorinda. Part of making a believable world is finding ways for things to make sense in that world. Research definitely counts – not only does it help us expand our horizons, but it gives more tools in the belt for world-building!

8 years ago

I’ve always been interested in religion and spirituality. I’ve spent a lot of time studying different spiritual traditions, and I’m finding this to pay off in my writing.

Creating fantasy religions – which weave in aspects of real religions – is a rewarding experience.

Reply to  Antonio del Drago
8 years ago

That is awesome. I love reading well-developed spiritual aspects in books. I think it’s one of the harder things to develop (at least for me), so when it’s done well, I can’t help but admire it.

8 years ago

Great article! The best part about creating a fictional piece, even if it is somewhat real world, is drumming up fictional, but believable, things for it.

Reply to  Peter Welmerink
8 years ago

Thanks, Peter! And I agree….although it frustrates the hell out of me sometimes, the most rewarding part is seeing a world really mesh up and come together. When I finally believe that I could run around in it, then I’m happy 🙂