[Maggie] You’re listening to “But Is It Write?”, a podcast we discuss, debunk and debate common writing advice.
[Candice] There’s a lot of writing advice out there but is it right? Hey everyone I’m Candice Lee and I’m here with Maggie Derrick. Maggie is an award-winning Wattpad Star, bisexual artist, young eldritch horror and dog friend.
[Maggie] And that’s my cohost Candice Lee. Candice is a full-time author, part-time procrastinator, relentless optimist, writer coach and karaoke star.
[Candice] Today’s topic is the piece of advice “Write what you know.”
[Maggie] *singing* Write what you know, write what you know.
[Candice] Maggie, thoughts?
[Maggie] This, I— okay, hm—
[Candice] Many, many thoughts.
[Maggie] Many thoughts. Much like the first episode, which, if you haven’t listened to it yet, go back, listen to the thing. We were talking about writing every day. This is another one of the ones that I think gets broadcast all over the place, but I think unlike the other one where people are like “yeah, it either works for me or it doesn’t.” I think the issue with this piece of advice is more about— I think people take it sometimes…
[Candice] I’m not a space captain pilot, how can I possibly write about space captain piloting?
[Maggie] Exactly. Okay, so let’s break it down.
[Candice] Let’s go to the beginning.
[Maggie] Let’s go back to the beginning. Let’s talk about what it means to write what you know. Because, spoiler alert, I think I am a proponent for this one.
[Maggie] Yes, but not in the literal sense. So, to write what you know, a lot of people think about the— I can’t remember who it was, I don’t know if it was a TED talk or just a Twitter thread I’d seen, and if any of our listeners know what I’m talking about then by all means please send it to us on Twitter or what have you, so that I can properly source this. But I remember reading something about a Professor who stopped giving this advice and tried to reframe it, because his creative writing students would be like, “Okay well, I’m a teenager, what do I know?” And so they would write about their summer jobs, or they would get frustrated because “My life has been— my experience has been so limited.” And they would get frustrated because “If this is all I get— this is all I’m allowed to write about, then I’ve got nothing to write about” And so he was trying to reframe it as, it’s not writing what you are, it’s mining your experiences as a person and feeding those into what you’re writing. And I will say that, when I was that age, when I was a teenager, when I was in university even, I was like— I can see it. I can see that my experience was so limited and that was really reflected in what I was writing. And so even when I was trying to write what I knew, what I knew was *so* little. My writing has steadily gotten better and stronger as I got older and lived more because I’m always, constantly drawing on the experiences I’ve had as a person and littering those into my work. But it wasn’t until I started doing that I realized, Oh, that’s what the advice means. And as an example, my first book, The Star and the Ocean, there are all these, like, weird— I would always get comments like “That was so creative, why did you think to put that in there?” And I will draw on the experience, on the part about— There’s a mountain setting in a town called Tenna and a bunch of the characters are search and rescue professionals. Their entire job is being a part of the search and rescue team in this mountainous area. People are like “That was such an interesting take, where that come from?” And actually, you know this, it came from the fact that at the time I was living in the Rocky Mountains in a small remote town where our search and rescue folks got a lot of hours doing the thing. And I learned a lot living in a mountain community and I found an opportunity to kind of sprinkle that in. And that was cool. And yeah, I don’t know. Help me. Say something.
[Candice] I feel like you kind of fall on the— You should write what you know but with a caveat. While I kind of feel like, if you don’t know anything about it: go out and find that thing, you know?
[Maggie] True. But if you’re going out to find the thing, if you’re going to do research — and research in writing is huge — Does it not then… do you not know it?
[Candice] See, I think it kinda works backwards, because what you kind of said, where people think, oh well, I don’t— I haven’t experienced this, I don’t know anything about this, henceforth I can’t write about this. But I feel like if you have an idea and you’re passionate about that idea, then you can go take that and you can go forward and you could learn about that thing. You can go get the experience that you want after the fact. Because I think people feel limited. They think, write what you know, I don’t know this, I can’t write it. And I would say, then go out and find it, you know?
[Maggie] Sure, that make sense to me. But what I think then is that, once you’ve gone out and found it, and you’ve learned the thing…
[Candice] Then you’ve experienced it. Because you don’t want that piece of advice to block you from your writing.
[Maggie] For sure. And you don’t want it to be a barrier to creating the thing. What I will say is, when you write what you know, it adds this layer and this flavor of authenticity. Because it shows. You can tell when you’re reading something and the author has not done the research. Whether it’s, they haven’t experienced it firsthand or they haven’t bothered to look into it. You can tell. Whether it’s because you know the thing and therefore you’re like, that’s wrong, that’s not right. Or, if it just feels forced, I guess? Oh okay, for example, when I was in the Writer’s Studio working on a rewrite of the first half of my project, a rewrite for something I had written. It’s all very nautical and swashbuckling. And it was funny to compare my first draft to my second draft because in my first draft, I didn’t know anything about like, nautical stuff, seafaring, etc. And over time, I took some time to learn. I still— I could never sail a boat. I would get seasick and I would probably die. But I took the time to learn a lot about how that works, to the point that, when my work was being workshopped by my group, there actually was a mariner in my group, and she was like, I can tell you’ve sailed a boat before because this is exactly how it works. And I was like, self high-five, because I fooled her and that means I’ve done something right, but I took the time to, like, educate myself.
[Candice] I have the exact same experience, because I have a lot of books— I write very— I have a long, long series about a rock band. And I’ve never been in a rock band, I’m not a musician at all. I have been backstage at a couple concerts, you know, I got VIP tickets. But I’ve never, liked, partied with the band in the VIP room, so I don’t really know anything about being a rock star musician, aside from the fan perspective. I’m a huge fan girl when it comes to a lot of music and bands, so I can look at it from that way like, Oh my god my favorite singer is on stage, I’m gonna die. But in a lot of my reviews I have people say, you can really tell she works in the music industry because she gets it so—, it’s so real, she gets it so right. And I’m like, well that’s the biggest compliment ever.
[Maggie] It feels so good when you’re like, yes, I nailed it.
[Candice] Because I really try, I do my research and most of my books are from the fan’s perspective so if I get something a little wrong it’s okay. She can say, you know, he used a six-string guitar and maybe I got the term wrong, I don’t know. But then I had a book with the lead singer was the main character and she had to have all these thoughts and do all these actions that were rock star, like knowing which note a song was in, which key it was in. And I don’t know any of that stuff, but— And you can tell I don’t know any of that because I’m just making stuff up right now. But I did my research and I have all these notes in this document of all these things, and I’m like okay, so the difference between a cello and a viola is… Because I had to know those things, and I didn’t.
[Maggie] My friend, Brianna Kienitz, she was the author of a book called Off-Pitch and the book focuses on two very specific things: soccer and music, in particular cello. That’s what reminded me of this. And I was asking her, where did you— like, did you play soccer while you were in schools? And she was like, pft, no. She actually played the FIFA World Cup video game.
[Candice] Yes, oh my god, yes.
[Maggie] But you wouldn’t have known! It felt so real, and I was like good for you. That’s the best kind of research.
[Candice] You know what, I was going to say, hm, you know, if I go to concerts, can I write this off as a business expense for research?
[Maggie] Look into it and get back to me because I want to know. But what I will say, and I want to come back to this, I think part of the problem with this advice is that people think that it applies to the whole overarching story, that the whole story has to be about something you know. But if we are to use you as an example, the authenticity comes from, like you said, being a fan, but you also have littered into your protagonist’s lives things that you were familiar with. Your very first book in the rock star books that you wrote, the protagonist was a social media manager.
[Candice] Yep. She got to follow around the band all summer and tweet about. It was the best, I loved writing it.
[Maggie] Which is a dream. But you spent years working as a social media manager so all the things were— so, maybe it was a small element of the overall story but you were able to add what you knew to your character and to part of her plot.
[Candice] I put a lot of myself into my characters. At least— I can take every main character and pinpoint, this is what is “me” about her. Literally, every one.
[Maggie] I think a lot of writers do. I think some writers would even say that they don’t, but…
[Candice] You know, I think it’s impossible not to put some of yourself into the characters.
[Maggie] Exactly. I think it’s probably subconscious for a lot of people but it’s like you said, I think it’s impossible to avoid completely adding some element of your personality or your experiences into your characters and therefore I think there is something to be said— Do I think that young writers are not capable of writing authentic voices? Absolutely not, that’s not what I’m saying. But I will say that, at least from my own personal experience, the older I’ve got, the more I’ve lived, the easier it has gotten for me to create really fleshed out characters or narratives, because I’ve got more to draw on. And so if you’re one of those writers who feels like, I’ve done nothing, how can I possibly write about what I know, this is terrible advice, my advice to you would be just— Two-fold. One: look at what you do, because I think a lot of people underwrite their own personal experiences. If someone could write a convincing narrative about soccer players because she’s played a video game?
[Candice] Which— I just love that.
[Maggie] I know, I thought it was the greatest thing when she told me. If someone can do that I guarantee, you have had experiences in your life that you can probably mine for content. It might seem insignificant to you, but it is an experience, and it’s valid. And I’m sure there’s a way that you can work that into your story. And two: get out there, try new things, pick up new hobbies, talk to people you’ve never talked to before. I mean, in my writer program that I just finished, which I feel like I’m going to mention all the time, but—
[Candice] Go ahead, it’s fine.
[Maggie] For my very first day of orientation, and for people who know me personally you know that I’m a huge Murderino, I love true crime everything. I sit down and this older gentleman is sitting next to me and our mentor is going around and introducing herself to all of us because she’s finally putting faces to the manuscripts that she had read through when we had applied. And she’s like, Oh, I know you, you’re the retired forensic scientist. And I swear, if I was a dog my ears would have been like “ping!” I whipped around so fast, like, “You need to tell me everything!” And what was really awesome, not just about that interaction, and I did lean on him quite a bit, “What would happen—? How would you *blah*?” And asked him a ton of questions to get his insider’s perspective, but one really kind of awesome thing that happened was, we had a very tightknit group of eight writers. We would all workshop each other’s material but we all came from really really interesting backgrounds and so we still to this day, even though the program is over, we have this WhatsApp group chat where we’ll occasionally toss questions out, “Hey, does anyone have experience with *blah*?” And if someone does then they’re able to chime in. And as an example, one of our members a handful of weeks ago was like, “Hey, okay, I’ve got this character, she’s been dead in her apartment for eight hours: Does it smell?” That’s a very specific question. But we have a retired forensic scientist, we had a former paramedic, and then we had me.
[Candice] Who, of course, knows everything about dead bodies.
[Maggie] Who knows far too much about dead things. We were all able to chime in and help them out with this question so he could make that scene a bit more authentic. And so it’s not necessarily “write what *you* know”, you probably know more people than you realize who’ve had very fascinating experiences that you can lean, on your subject matter experts.
[Candice] So, I kind of want to take this conversation into a direction where I am contrarian and I say, you don’t have to write what you know, at all. If you don’t know anything about it, that’s okay, because— Here’s my example. I write a lot of romance novels. I do not know how to flirt, personally. I am way too straightforward. Ask my fiancé. I just, like— There is no coyness or flirting. I just straight up say what I want or what I’m thinking.
[Maggie] Can I just say, I thought you were to say “I’m way too straight for flirting.” I was going to be like, Uh…? Anyway, sorry. That’s all.
[Candice] Straightforward. So, I write romance novels where there’s a lot of scenes with cute, witty banter and flirting and I don’t do that in real life, I don’t know how to do that. But you know what I do know how to do? Be creative and write things. I am a creative person. I have a creative mind. Maybe I don’t personally know how to flirt but I can use my brain and make up imagination stories. Well, if this character was going to flirt with that character, what kind of thing would that character say? With their personality type, and considering the person that they’re currently hitting on and that person’s personality type, what kind of conversation could happen? And I just make it up.
[Maggie] So what you’re saying is, you’re a creative writer?
[Maggie] You’re doing the thing.
[Candice] I am doing the thing. If you don’t know anything about something, and it’s not like, factual. If you’re worried about getting the facts wrong, you can look up facts. But if there’s some sort of experience or something that you don’t have any personal experience with, just use your imagination. I mean, like… Just make it up. Has anybody ever seen an elf before? Has anybody ever walked into the Mines of Moria?
[Maggie] Okay, fine! Of course, there’s going to be that element of making it up, I think that’s a given, and that it has to be okay. But I think you did touch on something important, is that, sometimes, we really don’t know. Ask questions. Do your research. It just adds that layer of authenticity, I guess. Because every so often you do read— And I’m repeating myself. I agree, I have never seen an elf, I have never flown.
[Candice] But you can imagine what it might feel like to fly.
[Maggie] For sure. I write— everything in my book has magic, and I’m not casting crazy light spells or whatever the heck. So yeah, I’m making some stuff up. But there will always be an element of, you’re always drawing on something.
[Candice] Yes, see, for my current urban fantasy series that I have had in my head for a billion years and I’m finally getting around to writing it, the main character uses tarot cards to channel her magic. So what I’ve done is researched a lot about tarot and knowing— My mom read it when I was younger so I knew a bit about Tarot anyway to begin with. But I really deep dived into the meanings of the cards and, you know, different card decks and what those different decks kind of have a feel for. And, you know, I did my research. But there is no way I’m going to know what it feels like to look at a dead spirit and suck its soul into the cards and have the card settle into the spirit’s wisdom. Right?
[Maggie] Well, I mean, you haven’t lived until you’ve done that.
[Candice] Right? I have never sucked a spirit into a tarot card. So there’s different levels of “write what you know.” There are some facts and there are some experiences you can experience yourself or research. But there are some things you just gotta make it up.
[Maggie] Okay, I will give you that, for sure, you’re making stuff up as you go. I guess all I’m saying is, there’s so much from your life that you can mine from to add that voice and that layer of authenticity, and don’t shy away from that, essentially. I think that’s what I’m trying to say.
[Candice] Yeah, and that makes sense.
[Maggie] The longer you live— And, like, listen, nobody likes to be told “When you’re older blah blah blah,” but as it turns out, as someone who’s started to get older, there’s an element of truth to that. And it’s not even just age, the more you experience, the more you do, the more fodder you have to draw on, and that’s— There’s nothing wrong with not having lived and having experiences but I guess the advice is, don’t feel like you can’t.
[Candice] Don’t feel limited.
[Maggie] Don’t feel limited, but don’t underestimate your own experiences either, and the potential they have to add to your writing. Don’t be afraid to draw on your experiences and the things that have happened to you, even if it is as simple as “I played this videogame and I learned a lot.” That’s great, that’s cool if you learn a lot from it, there you go. Most of us are never going to play World Cup soccer.
[Candice] And there are a lot of things in your life that you might think aren’t important, or aren’t, you know, something you’d want to write about, but you can, again, use your imagination and apply it. You don’t have to have specifically flown in the air but you have felt the breeze on your face and you know what it feels like to have the sun shine on you, so you can take the experiences you do have, even if you feel those experiences might be limited. Maybe you’re not, like, a hundred percent confident that you know what you’re going to be writing about, but you do have something you can draw on and that something is just going to make your writing better.
[Maggie] Yeah, exactly, and it doesn’t have to be literal. You don’t have to say, like… Oh, I— God, I’m not doing a great job here.
[Candice] Want me to fill in for you?
[Maggie] Basically, all I’m saying is, it doesn’t have to be a literal “I did A, therefore A has to appear in the book.” If you can find a way to extrapolate from that, to pull from that and use that as inspiration for a different element or story etc. Then, that’s great, so— I hope that makes sense.
[Candice] It does.
[Maggie] Because I’m drawing a blank at an example and I’m sure the moment we stop recording I’ll be like, Ugh, that’s what I meant to say.
[Candice] I have an example. So, let’s go back to my space pilot captain thing.
[Maggie] Let’s do it.
[Candice] So, imagine you are sitting in a spaceship and there is a— you’re a rebel in the rebel army and the evil Federation has sent a ship after you and they’re on your tail and you have to fly away but there’s an asteroid in front of you, there’s no way— Unless science very greatly leaps in advancement in the next 20 years, there’s no way that’s going to happen to you. But you have felt that adrenaline spike, and you have felt that dread of something coming after you or something behind you, and you have felt that dread or that block of, there something in front of me and I can’t get through it, you know what I mean? So it’s the feelings that you have and the experiences that made you feel that way, you know, your emotions or your physical sensations. That’s the kind of stuff you can draw on.
[Maggie] Yup, exactly, it’s basically— Basically a case of every little thing you’ve experienced. Draw on— I think that’s what comes down to. If we were to boil it all down. The idea of “write what you know” means to draw on things that are kind of familiar to you. And so doesn’t have to be a— It doesn’t have to be a job you had or a crazy experience, that something wild happened to you. It can be like Candice was saying, something as simple as a feeling. And when you draw on that sensation and that familiarity it just makes your writing feel real, it calls to the reader and it helps paint a picture, helps the reader feel exactly what your character’s feeling. And I think that’s what the advice comes down to. It doesn’t have to be literal, it doesn’t have to be big, it just means that you’re writing from a place of the familiar.
[Candice] Now I’m going to have, like, a tire screeching moment, because I’m going to use this example I tweeted out on Twitter recently. I won a writing award in elementary school for a short story in which the story ends with a very sharp, abrupt fade to black just as a family is about to be brutally murdered by a knife-wielding psychopath.
[Maggie] *incredulous laughter* What!? Why have I never heard of this? Why have you never told me about this?
[Candice] So, let’s just unpack that for a bit.
[Maggie] Do we have time??
[Candice] Number one: I won a writing award for this story as opposed to being sent to therapy for ten years. Let’s just say that. The 90s were a very different time. Nobody cared about children’s mental health or well-being. Luckily I was fine back then, I just had a healthy imagination. But it makes me think, what in my life as a nine-year-old led me to write that story?
[Maggie] I’m curious about that too, I would like to know the answer.
[Candice] So I’m thinking, and I’m like, what was it that made me write that story? And like, I’m trying to remember because it was so long ago. But I think it wasn’t so much the knife-wielding psychopath and the family, you know, being killed, as it was that really abrupt ending. The thought of, I’m watching something or I’m reading something and it’s going really great and I want to know what happens next and then BOOM, done, cut off in the middle like a cliffhanger. And I have a memory of reading one of those— what was it, Babysitter’s Little Sister books? And there was one of these Babysitter’s Mystery stories?
[Maggie] Oh yeah, I loved that.
[Candice] Right, and I have this, like, feeling or this memory, because I love— I’ve read every Babysitter’s Club book and I remember— I don’t know whether the book itself ended on a cliffhanger? It probably didn’t because I don’t think they would’ve done that. But I have this feeling of getting to a good point and then not being able to finish it. Maybe I was interrupted, my mom said it was time for dinner and I couldn’t read the next part, and that was a feeling that stuck with me. And I was thinking about that probably unconsciously, and when I was asked to write a short story for my grade four English class that feeling stuck with me and I wanted to replicate that. And so I had an abrupt fade to black ending where a family was just about to be murdered but then it cuts off and you don’t get to see what happens next.
[Maggie] That’s interesting, because it’s such a specific— and I love that where it came from was: I had this experience reading something and I want to emulate that for my reader, I want my reader to feel the same way I did when I got interrupted for dinner.
[Candice] “No books at the dinner table” was a rule which I hated.
[Maggie] I know, I got that one, too. This was pre-cell phone days, this was the early version. But I like that: I felt like *this* reading book A and I want book B to do the same for my readers. Nice way to wrap it up.
[Candice] Look at us, we’re at a half-hour, perfectly on time.
[Maggie] So I guess, let’s bring it back. The advice is, Write What You Know. But is it right?
[Candice] I would say that— Don’t let the advice limit you, but if you can put what you do know into your story it will make it stronger.
[Maggie] Don’t take it literally, it doesn’t have to be *literally* a thing you’ve done. But if it is, that’s great too. But, yes, don’t let it limit you, but know that if you are drawing on real experiences, it’s going to add some tasty authenticity to your work. All right, well, I think we’re at a half an hour so let’s wrap this up. We’re going to say that if you have any advice that you would like us to discuss in a future episode then by all means please send us a tweet, @butisitwrite, on Twitter and again that’s W-R-I-T-E. Or you can send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org, and maybe we’ll discuss it in a future episode. Until next time, thank you for listening and we still don’t have a fun sign-off, so… bye!