How do writers know what they want to write about?

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So how does a writer fill those blank pages?

It’s one of the most common questions a writer is asked: Why do you write what you write? Often times it is asked when a writer is least expecting it, leading to awkward pauses or garbled words and stutters. But to be fair, it’s not an easy question to explain. For me, writing is an organic process with stories just coming to mind and developing over the course of the project, and that can be hard to describe at the flip of a switch to a non-writer. Some projects come easy, others not so much.

While browsing through the various news sites, I stumbled across this article on Slate, entitled “How Do Writers Know What They Want to Write About?,” which was written by Ellen Vrana and is an essay of sorts about how writers compose their works. While I completely agree with her steps 2-4, I was disappointed to see the old, tried-and-true “gem,” aka write what you know, trotted out as step 1. People will climb to the top of mountains to proclaim this as a gospel truth of writing; heck, I have even witnessed fights in forums over this old adage with a poster invading a fantasy forum and telling fantasy writers they shouldn’t be writing fantasy with sword fights, etc., because they have not done it themselves.

For me, write what you know is very disheartening advise, especially when given to newbies who have yet to spread their wings. One of my friends, upon learning I wrote fiction, even confided in me that she gave up her creative writing endeavors upon receiving that advice from a “pro.” Truth be told, “write what you know” is a fallacy. As a professional writer, I am paid to constantly write articles on topics I know nothing about: pension reform, quints, aerial work platforms… the list goes endlessly on. So what to I do? I research a topic, compose a series of questions and consult people who are experts in the area. In fact for a recent article, I was told by one of those experts that facility managers need to become experts by gathering information from those who are already experts. While this advice was geared toward purchasing lifts, it works just as perfectly for writers.

Vrana does note this further down in her section on the topic, writing: “If you want to write about something that you don’t know about, experience it, learn about it, understand it. Then write if it feels right.” Which leads me to this point: Writing is all about passion and interest. Don’t feel like you have to limit yourself to “what you know.” If you are passionate about what you are writing, have enough of an interest in it, you will do the research, seek out available experiences and talk to the experts until you can be considered among them.

While conducting another interview, I spoke with an author, an older woman, who writes crime novels. She was a true example of this approach. For her novel, she worked with actual police officers in Chicago and depended on their feedback to shape characters and plot — to get it right. Other writers have corresponded with historians, visited museums, picked up fencing or archery, poured over book after book on a subject and more to get their books right.

So instead of the confining “write what you know,” write what you are passionate about, write what you will take the time to get right. The great thing about creative writing is it is not confining; you can even break grammatical rules if you do it with great thought and purpose. Humans are also blessed to have an imagination — some of ours are more vivid than others’ — so use it. You may never have been put into a trunk my a creep and then dropped into a river like your main character, but as a human being you can imagine what that would be like — you could feel the hopelessness of such a situation, even picture how you would react in such a situation or draw on how you suspect other people in your life would react if put into a similar situation.

While research and consultation might not fill in all the gaps, your imagination can, and just as long as your imaginative caulking, as it were, doesn’t exceed your readers’ willing suspension of disbelief, you should be fine. So lets retire that tired phrase, it’s long due to be put out to pasture, and I sure as heck do not want to write stories based on a staff writer who works in Northern Indiana, albeit I could write about Amish feuds with their Englischer neighbors (hint, it would be a horse droppings good tale).

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2 thoughts on “How do writers know what they want to write about?

  1. Great post! I completely agree. I still see so many writers giving others that advice, and it really irritates me. If authors never stepped outside their comfort zone or pressed the boundaries for what they know, they would never grow as writers.

    • Thanks! Yeah I personally think it is the worse advice ever dished out. You only write strictly in the confines of what you know if you are completely unimaginative.

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