writing what you know

by Toni McGee Causey

Write what you know.

That’s the big stick sometimes used on writers, especially new writers. The implication, of course, is that you’d better not start writing until you know stuff. I went for years thinking that one of these days, I was going to get to a point where I knew for sure that I knew stuff and horns were going to sound or maybe music would play or some crisp-suited pseudo-TV-host would pop up and let me know that I’d just won the ability to go forward and write. Then I came to the realization, of course, that other people were writing about murders (and one hopes not from first-hand experience) and writing about blowing up the world (again, hoping that’s not a part of their resumé) or assassinating the president (now there’s one to guarantee Google hits), and that’s when I understood that I didn’t have to know anything, and since I was an expert at that, it was quite freeing. Not having a clue? I’m so there.

Which is when I really examined that old piece of advice, the one that felt like it was keeping me from breaking through, and I realized, I already know what’s important. It’s one of those pieces of advice which can sound very limiting, until you turn it around a bit.

I know the sound of the crack of a watermelon rind as it splits open, juice dribbling down onto the table, and the sweet cold crunch of the first bite on a hot summer day.

I know the electrical shock of betrayal in the midst of utter silence as I see a boyfriend’s other woman.

I know the stunning incredulity of how one three-year-old can fill an entire bathroom with suds, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall with just a little shampoo and a whirlpool attachment for a tub.

I know the chaos and terror of running red lights to get to a hospital in time.

I know the shushing, oppressive silence of standing in the back of a funeral home.

The thing I’ve been asked at writer’s workshops I’ve given lately is, "How can I write about anything exciting? I have a normal life, but I’ve been told not to write something so autobiographical for a first novel, that that’s the kiss of death. So what do I do?"

And my answer is simple: you know yourself. You know people. And you know how to research whatever it is you need to know.

I know the scent of an old, worn leather glove and the sting of a line drive ball hit across the pitcher’s mound.

I know the first strawberry of the season, picked from my paw paw’s farm, eaten right there as I sat in the dirt between rows.

I know the clink of fine white china as it’s set down on a glossy mahogany table.

I know the safety of my dad’s hug, the tears in my mom’s eyes, the laughter of my brother.

I know my husband’s smile, the sly one he doesn’t show to others.

"But how," someone asked at the same workshop, "will I know I have a story? How will I know where to begin?"

Begin where the conflict starts. That’s where your story begins, and trust the reader to know that. This, I think was the hardest thing for me to internalize, was that I could trust that the reader knew that in the world of these characters, stuff had happened to them before this point. That there was backstory, that there were reasons for them being the way they were, and I had to break myself of wanting to put all of that in so that the reader understood them so that they would know this moment, this conflict was a big deal.

The conflict does need to be a big deal — to that character. But readers don’t have to know everything about the characters in the beginning to know that. They’re going to trust that you’re starting at the point where something in the character’s life has come to an abrupt, dramatic moment. Or maybe it’s a quiet, dramatic moment, but the point is, there is a moment. There is conflict. It may be internal, it may be external or some combination, but the story we care about as a reader is that struggle. They may not even overcome it, but if you connect us to their lives, to the little details that make them unique, we’re going to care if they try to win that conflict.

I know the feel of rain on my face, sluicing down my clothes, saturating through to the bone.

I know the joy in my sons’ eyes on Christmas morning.

I know the chaos of running out of time, everyone depending on me to get there, with the thing, whatever the thing was.

I know the rush of relief when I made it.

I know failing, the sitting-on-the-floor, stunned, too stunned to breathe, to form tears, to speak.

I know the rush of success, wanting to dance with the world.

What you know, already, is wanting something. You already know successes, and you know failures. I’m betting most of you know losing something that you never, ever wanted to lose, and the numbing pain that caused. That’s where your story starts: the character is going to lose something. And they care, deeply, that they not lose it.

So, write what you know.

And while you’re at it, tell me something you know, some detail of what you’ve seen, what you’ve heard, what you’ve learned, because I’d like to get to know you better.

16 thoughts on “writing what you know

  1. billie

    Toni, you know a lot of really great things.

    I learned a big new thing this week. I know the potent feelings that mix together when sitting with my dad, home with my mother, Hospice coming every day, and seeing him no longer able to get out of the bed, his skin like a baby’s again, soft and translucent.

    I know how good and bad it is to see him slip from his gruff self that argues with my mom and compels her to argue back to a new Buddha-like self that gazes intently at anyone who visits as if he’s studying them for a final and very important time. And how he has slipped to such a peaceful state of being, where he laughs at things and smiles and loves hearing stories about things we did together.

    That it is indeed possible to turn off the lights and see someone’s eyes open in the dark, still gazing, not ready to stop hearing the remembrance, even though he’s been given a sleeping pill that must surely be taking effect. (oddly, a detail about eyes in darkness I’d written and rewritten in this edit b/c someone questioned it – I now know I wrote it right the first time)

    I just realized this morning that the road trip my dad and I took together from Texas through New Mexico and on to California when I was in my late twenties was the seed, on some level, for this novel I’m editing right now. It blows my mind that I never knew that until today.

  2. R.J. Mangahas

    At a workshop I took some time ago, the instructor stressed the write what you know theory, but he also said to write what you WOULD LIKE TO know. He believed that if there was something that captured your interest and wanted to write about it, go out and learn what you can about it.

    Because of working in the shoe department of Olympia Sports,I know a lot about different types of athletic shoes, including the different shoe brands and their specific technology, how each technology works and how it can help the wearer. Useless knowledge when it comes to solving the world’s economic woes or doing something to save the environment, but if you have flat feet that are narrow and you need a good running shoe, then I’m your go-to guy.

  3. Jake Nantz

    I know the satisfying thud of knocking an attackman into my teammate, and thus out of the game.

    I know that anger, true anger, is not hot. It hurts because it’s icy, a tornado and a blizzard combined in sub-zero hate.

    I know the fury and helplessness, the impotence, of watching my wife suffer for weeks with a pain I can’t fix.

    I know the ache in my chest and the hot tears of pride when I read what some of my students wrote to me in my yearbook.

    I know sitting in a meeting and hearing all of the new bureaucratic nonsense we’re going to do that leaves us even less time to teach. That time is an ogre dragging you back to his cave to feast.

    I know the last weeks of summer before teachers report back, knowing students have at least two weeks more than us while we learn the new bureaucratic nonsense. That time is an imp, running forever out of your grasp.

    I know I want to know the feeling of hearing, finally from an agent, the word yes.

  4. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Wow.Toni, this is another beauty.

    Billie,My heart broke and healed reading your post. Isn’t that astounding about the seed for your book? And that it’s happening now . . .

    RJ,You know a lot about people if you’ve been selling shoes. I have arthritis at the base of both of my big toes and shoes are a major issue for me. I’m always in pain, though I don’t usually show it, and I bet you see customers like me all the time. You know the wrinkles we get from the chronic hurt. You know the joy that comes to our faces when a shoe fits without that stab or ache.

    Jake,You know so much.I hope your last wish comes true soon.

  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    I got so busy responding to everyone and their moving posts that I forgot to write even one thing I know.

    I know the unexpected surprise of seeing my daughter watching television, her knees on the floor and back curving sideways on a low table, and realizing she’s not a little girl anymore.

    I know the peace that comes from forgiving an absent father, from loving a mother in spite of her inability to let go of her anger for even a moment.

    I know the utter joy of a child’s morning embrace, the smell of warm yeast and touch of hot, soft skin.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, I couldn’t possibly say it any better than Pari did, so I’ll just quote her: “My heart broke and healed reading your post.”

    I just wrote a scene in which a young woman beats her boss’s head in. I had no problem living it at all. I know how it feels to be so angry you could kill. I feel it just about every time I pick up a newspaper.

  7. Tom Barclay

    Toni, all I can say is, “You’d best be collecting these into some kind of writers’ breviary.”

    No, not true, one more thing. “I’m betting most of you know losing something that you never, ever wanted to lose, and the numbing pain that caused.”

    I *wish* it had been numbing.

  8. Terri Molina

    One thing I know for sure…I love reading your posts Toni! 😉

    As my 46th (*gwad already??) birthday approaches I realized I’ve been affected by and learned a lot about love, loss, heartache, compassion, childbirth, anger, hate, predjudice, poverty, humiliation, pride, betrayal, fear, life, death, joy, disappointment.

    Maybe that’s why I write romance with such bitchy characters. 😉

  9. JT Ellison

    Ah, Billie. What grace you’ve given us today.

    I know that when I bury my nose in my cat’s fur, she smells like graham crackers, a scent that gives me great peace.

    What a great post, Toni. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Deborah

    Toni, so interesting – that the characters but not the readers need to know everything leading up to the point of conflict. You’ve just given me insight…

    For some reason I’ve been remembering the plum tree in my mother’s back yard. I know the smell and taste of the ripe plums, and the sweet stench of those rotting on the ground. And the heat of the kitchen in summer when she used to make plum jelly.

  11. Lori G. Armstrong

    I feel my heart breaking for a good friend going through the most awful goddamn thing I can imagine – and fearing my emotional support, rather than my physical presence, isn’t enough for either of us.

    Beautiful post.

  12. Fran

    I know that absolutely still moment you get between hearing, “It’s about your son and the police are here” and the next breath.

    I know the fisted knot in the throat when you realize that rattle was the last sound your best friend will ever make.

    I know the breathless slow smile of delight when the skittish kitten falls asleep in your lap.

    Oh my, Toni, you’re right, the things we know! Thank you!

  13. toni

    Hi everyone — I am so sorry to have been absent today because the answers here were lovely and amazing. I traveled (plane) most of the day. What an awesome discussion to come home to. Thank you all!

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni – sorry to come late (I should just have a stamp made up that says that, because I seem to type it every time).

    Another wonderful post.

    At the end of the day, the first line of the job description for a fiction writer should be:

    We make stuff up …


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