Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.50: Write What You… No.

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

We’ve all heard the adage “write what you know,” and in this episode we set out to un-misinterpret it. The phrase is fraught, and perhaps the most perilous bit is that it can be used an excuse to not write. Here at Writing Excuses we’re pretty committed to approaching things in ways that let us do MORE writing, so this topic is a great place for us to leave you out of excuses.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take a thing you’re familiar with, and make it a superpower.

Thing of the week: Armistice: Amberlough Dossier, Book 2, by Lara Elena Donnelly, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: An old writing adage, Write What You Know. But what does it mean? Tap into what you know from your own experience! Extrapolate from what you know. Write what you know is true. Know your genre… or not? Write what you love. Mix the familiar and the strange. Write what you know, but add what you don’t know, too. Write what you know may be boring to you, but your experience is individual. As a writer, you filter everything through your own experience. What you are passionate about may be a better story. Use your own emotional touchstones to make a richer story. Expand your knowledge, know more. When you tackle something difficult, put the other parts on an easy setting.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 50.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Write What You… No.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Margaret] I’m Margaret.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] This is an age-old adage in writing circles. Write what you know. You may have been taught…

[Howard] Can I just say write what you nope?


[Brandon] Yes. You may have been taught it before. It’s kind of confusing. The first time I heard it, I’m like, “Wait. So I can’t write fantasy or…” What do you guys think of this adage?

[Mary Robinette] So, I agree that this is one of the things that is often wildly misunderstood. The idea behind the original is that there are things that you know, that you can tap into. You know what it’s like to be afraid. You’ve had these different experiences in your life. If you tap into those and write from your own personal experience, you’re going to have a story that’s rich in texture. The thing that I often say for fantasy people is extrapolate from what you know.

[Brandon] Yeah, that’s a good suggestion.

[Margaret] A phrasing I heard of it once from Alice Chadwick at a conference on narrative and nonfiction. He said, “Write what you know is true.” There’s some unpacking around that, but I think that really it speaks that same grain of truth, of you don’t have to write your own literal experience… I’m not necessarily giving advice to journalists with this, but as a fiction writer, you can write from your own experience. If that is grounded, then that will ground your story, no matter how fantastical you get from there.

[Howard] For journalists, it’s write what you’ve verified with an additional source.


[Howard] The… Early in Schlock Mercenary, I hadn’t done a whole lot of research with military folk yet. But I was fresh out of a very unhealthy corporate environment where… I’ve talked about this principle before… Position power was being substituted for personal power. I am your boss, therefore you must like me. All the time, all over. It was very top-down. I was familiar with how that worked and how it was broken. I just sort of built the personalities of my mercenaries in that manner. I got email from people saying, “Were you and I in the same unit? Because I swear you’ve described my lieutenant or my captain.” I found that very flattering, because what it said to me is I know enough about broken people to have correctly described one that I’ve never met.

[Brandon] One of the things that… When I think about write what you know, I get actually really conflicted. Because I like some of the sentiment that this phrase is telling you. But then I go the rounds. If I kind of look at fantasy novels, there is a big part of me that thinks, if you’re going to write in a genre, you should familiarize yourself with this genre. You should know the conventions of the genre and you should become part of the discussion. There’s another smaller part of me that says, “Yeah, but people who have none of that baggage sometimes create things that are just wildly new and completely off the beaten path and doing something very interesting with the genre.” So you can see, I kind of… The two different sides of me fight about this pretty often.

[Mary Robinette] I think one of the questions there is, like, where is the line between what you know and what you love? So I think that when people are writing something that… And they’re coming to science fiction and fantasy from outside the genre, there still chasing the thing that they love and they’re still writing the thing that they know. They’re just adding this unfamiliar to it. Which is the same thing that we do in genre. We’re writing something that we love. We’re always trying… We talk about this all the time on the podcast, the familiar and the strange. It’s just that for us, the genre is the familiar. That is us writing what we know. Then we add other things that we don’t know onto it. So I feel like it’s two sides of the same coin.

[Margaret] Yeah.

[Brandon] How do you guys incorporate who you are into the settings that you’re building?


[Howard] You know what, that’s a question that…

[Margaret] I try not to, honestly.

[Howard] That is a question that will be very specifically answered in great detail when I’m no longer around to defend myself.


[Howard] Because I remain unaware of an unknown number of my biases that creep into my work in ways that I cannot see, hear, smell, taste, touch, whatever. I like to think that I’m aware of how I’m influencing these things, but there is a voice up in the nosebleed seats that says, “Expect to be wrong. But don’t worry, because you’ll be dead before anybody really points it out in detail.”

[Margaret] When… At a slightly more literal level, I know my first published short story, Jane, was in Shimmer magazine. This is a story about a paramedic who winds up at the center of a zombie apocalypse. Really, it’s about her relationship with her foster mother. I have her walking in the streets of Los Angeles. She absolutely lived in the first apartment that I lived in in LA. Even… It’s like… It was boring to me, but I’m like, “Only one other person has ever lived in that apartment with me.” So, it’s like… Walking up the street, if you were familiar with the street when I lived there, the empty lot that’s there was absolutely there. She is fictional, the dog is fictional. Like, I don’t know much about zombies, but I can root it in a Los Angeles that I’ve walked the streets of, and I’ve heard the traffic, and I understand it.

[Mary Robinette] I think the thing that you said in there that I really want to underline for the readers about why write what you know actually works. It’s boring to me. But the experience that you have as a person is individual. It’s not an experience that other people have. It’s why you all get so excited every time I break out the puppetry stuff. When I’m in puppetry communities, it’s like… They’re like, “Oh, that thing went wrong? Let me one up you with this.” It’s like this is… It’s all old hat to us. But when I come over to writing, to prose, it’s a novel and fresh way to look at things. So, one of the things that… To get back to your question about how to put yourself in there, is that you act as a filter for everything that you’re writing. We get asked all the time where do the ideas come from. We also always say they’re all around you. But what you’re doing as a writer is that you’re filtering it through your own experience. So I think, for me, one of the things with the… Parts of the way write what you know that is true is to trust your taste, and to trust your own experience, and to trust that it is interesting to other people.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which, Mary, you have.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. So this is Armistice by Lara Elena Donnelly. I was the audiobook narrator for this. It’s the sequel to Amberlough, which I raved about previously. This is such a strong book. It follows on the heels of Amberlough, which it basically feels like it’s the Weimer Republic. Here we have three of the… Or two of the viewpoint characters that we had in the previous book plus a new one. So we’ve got to people that we are familiar with and they’ve moved… They are refugees now in another country. So what you’re getting there is a lot of the outsider “OMG, what’s going on?” But you can still see Lara’s voice coming through, even though this is in a totally new place. Also, the characters and their interactions are all informed by where they have been… By their past. I think that honestly you could read this book without having read the first one, but the emotional resonance between the two books is so powerful if you read them sequentially that I… I’m recommending Armistice, but if you have not read Amberlough, pick up Amberlough, then read Armistice.

[Brandon] All right. So, kind of, I want to push on this theme a little bit further, because I think this is really interesting. A lot of times, when I’m talking to my students and working with them at the university course, this is something that they completely miss. This idea that something that they are really passionate about can make a much better story than trying to in some ways write something patterned after what you’ve seen before.

[Howard] Certainly, write something bigger than they could ever be is…

[Brandon] Or just more bland. Really.


[Brandon] That’s the thing. People don’t trust themselves that what they’re passionate about is going to translate into stories. I really do think if you are really excited and passionate about something, that’s going to help you make a better story.


[Brandon] Now there is a danger there in the kind of waxing too long about a topic or going too deep into jargon or things like this. Kind of losing track of a story because you’re too busy writing about the ins and outs of breeding rabbits which is really interesting to you. How can you balance this?

[Howard] For me, it’s emotional touchstones.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] I’m going to share a very personal example. In 2006, I separated my shoulder and was prescribed Lortab and ended up addicted to it. The addiction was not one where I was stealing in order to illegally obtain pills. It was one in which I now had a dependency that was controlling me, instead of me controlling it. We went off of Lortab, and when I say we, it was Sandra removing it from the house and shepherding me through the process of living without this stuff. For two years after that, if you said the word Lortab, I wanted to cry. Because I knew that this was a thing that would relax me, that would make me kind of happy, and I absolutely could not have it. That experience was incredibly alien to everything else about me. You could say a word and it would hurt me. That knowledge… I can use that as a writer. In 2018, I injured my arm in a different way. The doctor said, “Well, we don’t know what’s wrong yet, but maybe ibuprofen, or we can get you some hydrocodone.” I know what hydrocodone means. That 12-year-old addiction came back all at once. I almost broke down in the doctor’s office. Now I have this understanding of how when an addict says, “I’m not no longer an addict, I’m just not using. No, I’m always an addict.” I have an understanding of that. I don’t need to write a story about someone who separates his shoulder and then has a blood pressure problem. I can write a story about somebody who has lost a loved one and thinks they’re over it, and 15 years later stumbles across a photograph and discovers that they’re not. When I think write what you know, that’s a thing that I know.

[Mary Robinette] That’s a great example. Yeah. The… Less personal example, but all puppets, all the time, which is what I do, is… We talk about voice and things like this. I’ve talked about this when we were talking about the voice podcast, that there’s three things when we’re talking about puppetry, style of puppet. It’s mechanical style, the aesthetic style, or the personal style. The mechanical style is what kind of puppet is it? The aesthetic style is what does it look like? Does it look like a Muppet? Does it look like it’s handcarved? The personal style is you can hand the same puppet to two puppeteers and it will look like a different character. It’s because of the individual taste of the performer. Jim Henson, if you look at anything else that he did that is not Muppets, like, was much more in a Dada, surreal, experimental land of filmmaking. Steve Whitmire, who initially took over Kermit, was much more of a linear storyteller. So they’re going to just make different choices. This is the kind of thing that were talking about with write what you know. It’s like when we’re saying trust yourself, trust your own instincts, it’s… These things will allow you to create something that is special and unique. When you’re taking something that’s deeply personal, like what Howard experienced, you’re going to explore that in ways that are different from someone else who has that. It’s going to allow you to bring an honesty to your work when you’re reaching for things that you know. This is why also when we, in the larger picture, when we’re talking about the hashtag #ownvoices, which is the importance of reading fiction and supporting fiction written by people from a lived experience writing about their lived experience, the reason is because that lived experience is going to inform that fiction. When you sit there and say, “Oh, but my world is boring. My world is normal.” What you’re also doing is you’re setting yourself… First of all, you’re devaluing yourself.

[Margaret] Right.

[Mary Robinette] But you’re also kind of setting yourself up as the default, as the dominant, and exoticizing everybody else. That’s… That is also a problem. This is not to say that you’re not allowed to write other people. That’s not… It’s not that you’re never… It’s like I am totally allowed to write people who are not a… Let’s see when this podcast airs… Not a 50-year-old white woman. But… Oh…


[Mary Robinette] Sorry.

[Howard] I’m already a 50-year-old white man as of this recording, so… Have fun with it.

[Mary Robinette] Thanks. I’m actually really looking forward to it. To be honest. But the point being that I am allowed to write other characters. I’m allowed to do these other things. But when we talk about write what you know, there’s two aspects of that. One is that my work should be influenced by what I know. The other thing is that my work will be influenced by what I know, whether I want it to or not, and I have to be aware of that when I go into stuff.

[Margaret] I think the other thing that strikes me about… I think probably the first time I heard write what you know, I was maybe a second grader, it was like one of those came across in elementary school…

[Howard] I have bad news for you, kid.

[Margaret] Well, that’s the thing, because it sort of… You get told that as a child, and it’s like, “What do I know?” What you know is not set in stone. One of, I think the charge inherent in write what you know is expand your knowledge. Know more.

[Mary Robinette] The other thing that I’m going to say is, especially if you are tackling something that is very difficult, it is totally okay to put everything else to the easy setting. If you are… Especially if you are an early career writer, and you’re like, “I am trying to get a handle on plot.” Don’t try to get a handle on writing the other at the same time that you’re trying to get a handle on writing plot. With Calculating Stars, I knew that I was going to have to be handling mathematics and orbital mechanics and all of these other things. Judaism! Which, I don’t know if you noticed, been raised Southern Baptist and Methodist. Really, this is not… I was handling all of these things. So I set Elma to a Southern woman, I gave her a mother that’s very much like my mother, that relationship, I gave her a marriage that’s very much like my marriage. I sent everything I could to what I really know, to give myself room to work on and concentrate on the things that I don’t know. Even there, I was extrapolating from what I know.

[Howard] And you decided to tackle this project when you are already pretty comfortable with what goes into writing a novel.

[Mary Robinette] That’s true. That’s the other aspect.

[Brandon] Well, I’m going to have to wrap us up here. It’s kind of a sad moment, because this is us saying goodbye to Margaret. Not forever. But this is our last podcast with Margaret, so we’re going to let her give the homework this week.

[Margaret] All right. So, the homework assignment this week. We want you to take an area that you are super familiar with and turn that into a superpower. The same way Mary talked about how we all think her puppet stuff is completely cool, the way that my background as a screenwriter has made me a structural god among novelists…


[Margaret] This is…

[Mary Robinette] Quite true. Accurate. Accurate.

[Margaret] Find something in your life that you maybe don’t think is all that interesting and make it the coolest thing on the planet.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. Thank you, Margaret.

[Margaret] Thank you.

[Brandon] For hosting with us this year. You all are out of excuses. Now go write.