Write what you know

Christmas 1968 & 1969

Christmas 1968 & 1969

Writers have been advised for years that they should stick with what they know when they sit down to write a book. I checked the Internet and learned this advice is a quote from Mark Twain.

 “Write what you know.” ― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer/Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ― Source Goodreads

 I recently was lectured by a psychic who complained about writers who weren’t psychics writing paranormal novels about psychics. I replied – “I’ve never lived in the Middle Ages. Do you mean I can’t write a Medieval romance?”

I’ve never ridden a bull (or attempted to), but I’ve written about a bull rider. I recently completed a manuscript that has a tornado in it. I’ve never been in the direct path of tornado, but was living in Louisville when the big one hit the city in April 1974.

Granted, I’m more comfortable writing about settings I know—the Bluegrass area of Kentucky, for example. I know more about American Saddlebred horses, so I’m more likely to write stories about that breed, not Thoroughbreds. I lived through the sixties, so I can write about that time with some sort of authenticity. Nonetheless, I had to research those years again for my Ladies of Legend novellas.

The Internet is a great resource. I found the following statement from Nathan Englander. I think he pretty much sums up what is really meant by the directive for writers.

“Write what you know” isn’t about events, says Englander. It’s about emotions. Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? “

I’m good with that explanation. To make our stories realistic, we must create characters by using human emotions we all experience.






  1. I take it to refer to emotions, too. Because I’ve never time traveled and can’t expect to do so anytime soon.

  2. Christie stratos says:

    I completely agree with you! It’s not about what you’ve physically experienced, but what you’ve emotionally experienced. If we only wrote about things we had physically experienced, the number of published books would be 1/4 of what it is now, at most. That’s what research is for. Great post!

  3. Hey, Jan! Good post. I’ve always thought “write what you know” refers to emotional truth. Since we all are capable of identifying with the universal truths of human emotions, then we are all capable of writing just about anything if people — fictional or real — are involved.

  4. I like that explanation, too. I’ve always pretty much shrugged off “write what you know” because…well, I don’t know that much. But the emotions. Yeah, those I know. Good post, Jan!

  5. I’m glad I found this explanation too, because like you, I know emotion better than I know a medieval battlefield! Thanks for the comments.

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