Five Tips for Using What You Know to Write Fiction

A Guest Post
by Steve George

It’s an old saw for new authors: Write what you know. The advice explains why so many memoirs and how-to books are being published these days, but it’s small comfort for the beginning novelist whose life experiences don’t include travel to exotic locations, knowledge of police procedures, or service in the CIA.

Like many aspiring authors, I tried writing a novel—in my case, a political thriller—without a clue about the subject. About halfway through, my ignorance caught up with me. I never finished it. I had always heard the mantra, “Write what you know,” but I couldn’t imagine how what I knew would interest anybody. One day, when I was looking out my home office window, I thought, “What if my main character works at home? And what if he’s a do-it-yourselfer? And what if he likes to help his neighbors with their home projects and that gets him into trouble somehow?” I could write a story about that.

The bones of my new Handy Mann novels, Dead Blow Hammer and Mimsy, were formed by what I’ve learned as a homeowner, entrepreneur, neighbor, and do-it-yourselfer. Here are my top five tips for using what you know to write fiction:

1. Identify what you know. You have work, interests, hobbies, and passions. Make a list of what you know. Maybe you watch a lot of television: Write it down. Maybe you like to cook Italian food: Write it down. Maybe you play poker every Thursday night: Write it down. Every experience has the potential to serve your story in unexpected ways.

2. Mine your past. No matter how old you are, you have a lifetime of experiences to draw from. Maybe you had a first love, went to college, worked crummy jobs, got married, got divorced, raised children, got sick, got better, travelled (even if it wasn’t far), solved problems, made mistakes, acted bravely, or found serenity—or wild times. They are nuggets that can bring your stories to life.

3. Steal from friends. I don’t know a thing about commodity trading, but one of my friends does, so I made my main character a commodity trader. He can do the job at home and it doesn’t chain him to a desk. My friend gave me insight into how it works and feedback on my first draft. Most friends will be happy to talk about what they know, which expands what you know in personal ways.

4. Stretch them out. This is the “what if” part. Watching television may not seem like fodder for a novel, but what if you were watching television and you saw someone in a sitcom that you recognized, someone you thought was dead or in jail. Or what if the plot of a drama reminded you of an unsolved mystery in your past and the name of the episode’s writer sounded familiar. “What if” stretches out what you know to produce compelling stories.

5. Fill in the blanks. You don’t have to be an expert; you just have to write like one. My main character, Handy Mann, needed to pick a lock, something I’ve never done. A YouTube video not only showed me how, it described the tools you need to do it. The Internet can help you turn a little knowledge into a realistic and authentic tale.

Every writer has a lifetime of experiences upon which to draw. While those experiences may not seem book-worthy, they are launching points for the imagination. By building on what we know, we strengthen our writing with substance, texture, and truth.

Steve George has written ten nonfiction books including four business books published by John Wiley & Sons, a Minnesota Book Award nominee published by University of Minnesota Press, two corporate histories, and three ghostwriting projects. Dead Blow Hammer is his first novel. Learn more about Steve on his website and his Author’s page.

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13 thoughts on “Five Tips for Using What You Know to Write Fiction”

  1. Thanks for the great tips. It’s good to be reminded that even if we’re not rocket scientist, we’ve all lived and continue to do so which can be apart of our writing.

  2. Everybody always parrots, “Write what you know”; it’s good to see somebody fill it in a bit.
    What number 5 says to me is my own twist on “Write what you know” — namely, “Know what you write”.
    We’re in such an amazing era for being able to augment what we know.
    I did a couple of chapters set on the campus of Yale, where I’ve never been. I got on Google maps street view and strolled around campus until I got the picture.

      1. I was hoping to use Google Earth to check on a hiking track I wanted my character to use, but the path was hidden by trees. So yes, I had to get out there in RealLifeville and walk the track – it nearly killed me, but it showed me the error of my plot! I thought a handcart would trundle happily along that path but I hadn’t accounted for the narrow bridges and dozens of near-vertical flights of steps!
        I should be able to walk again in a few days…

        1. Nothing replaces being out there. When I went back to Vancouver to get some research questions answered for my last novel, I uncovered a bunch of stuff that changed and essentially improved my story beyond belief.

  3. Thanks for the comments. As for the thread about experiencing something rather than researching it online, I agree that seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, and hearing things is much richer than Googling it…but not nearly as cost effective.

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