Write What You Don’t Know: A NaNo Cautionary Tale

Whether or not you are a professional writer, the chances are pretty good that you were told by some English teacher somewhere at some time to “write what you know.”

I beg to differ.

Yes, there are definitely times when drawing on personal experience is a good idea—say, when you’re writing your memoir (unless you’re James Burroughs) or your autobiography.

But there is definitely an argument to be made for making stuff up (but only in fiction; again, see: JAMES BURROUGHS).

Case in point: my NaNo novel last November. For those of you who haven’t heard the story, I learned about and decided to do National Novel Writing Month on October 31. I’m a non-fiction writer by practice, so I was excited at the idea of doing something completely out of my range. It also meant that unlike many writers, I hadn’t spent years jotting down hundreds of plot ideas for my Great American Novel.

So I jumped in on November 1s,t, , writing whatever came into my head and not re-reading or editing until December 1st.  Thinking I should write what I know, I decided to write a novel about a character based on my father as a boy in World War II Italy. Yes—because who knows the mind and motivations of a 10-year-old Italian boy in the middle of war better than a 39-year-old female ex-New Yorker living in North Carolina and working in technical public relations?


Needless to say, after about 2 pages, I had depleted what I knew. Only 49,500 words to go.

And this is when I learned that writing about something you don’t know about is definitely a great idea!

First, when you “write what you know,” you will inevitably edit yourself to death. Your brain will be convinced that, even though you are writing fiction, every word on the page must be truth. Sometimes this can work to your advantage—like the fact that my father’s tricycle was the only form of wheeled transportation in his town—but many times it can be a detriment. You are trying so hard to make your own true story work on the page that the story arc is sadly arc-less. Let’s be honest, few of us lead lives that are novel-worthy without any embellishment. But once you’ve committed to telling your story, you hesitate to use the writing skills you possess to transform a set of facts into a gripping adventure.

Second, when you get to a part of the story that you are not privy to, your progress is stunted. But what did my father do next? I don’t know. I think I’ll spend the next two hours stressing about how my book can never be finished without accounting for the next five minutes in my father’s life. Or worse—you find out he spent the next hour picking his nose and you can’t find a way to make that move the plot forward (fyi, I am fairly confident my father never spent an hour picking his nose, ever—this example is just hypothetical).

This is my dad. He is 80, adorable, and does NOT pick his nose.


Lastly, when you write only what you know, you fail to tap into your incredible imagination. Think you’re not very inspired? Think again.

While I knew a lot about the daily life in my father’s town from years and years of his stories, I knew almost nothing about the history of his region of Italy—Calabria—particularly about specific events during World War II. So every time I got to a part in the novel where I didn’t know what my character would do next, I hit Google. I’d enter random but related words—Calabria, altar boys, caves, Mussolini, Holocaust, Jews, soldiers, WWII—and proceed to read through any interesting entries it brought up. Three of the key plot turns in my book came out of these searches. If I had written an outline for the novel before November 1 based only on what I knew, the book I wrote would have been very different, and I dare say, very boring.

Honestly, how did writers do it before Google????

What’s more, the research yielded a rich treasure trove of travel and history article ideas that I can pitch to magazine editors for years to come.

I’m a journalist by training, and I am a firm believer that truth can be entertaining, down to the very last boring detail (hence this blog). However, if the time has come to release your inner novelist, a little bit of dreaming and a whole lot of Googling can’t hurt.

This entry was posted in Creativity, NaNoWriMo, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Write What You Don’t Know: A NaNo Cautionary Tale

  1. amkuska says:

    As I have often said before, I don’t think “Write what you know” is talking about facts. Facts can be researched. Facts can be learned. You don’t have to experience a fact to know about it.

    What that phrase means, to me anyway, is write what you’ve felt in your heart. Okay, perhaps you’ve never been left alone in a forgotten dungeon for ten years, but you probably know what it feels like to be completely exciled, and if you don’t know what that feels like, no matter how detailed you make the inside of the dungeon, people will know it isn’t written on your heart.

    That phrase means you gotta stand naked on the front lawn, pour your feelings out for the world to see, let everyone peak into your soul. That’s writing. The rest is just research.

    • Exactly. I think too many people take it too literally; that they can only write about scenes, places, and activities that they have experienced and are experts in. But if we all do that, there is a lot of fantasy, science fiction and yes, even romance novels, that could never be written by their authors.

  2. lynnardmichael says:

    really dig your honesty and approach to this tortured vocation. hats off to you! best of luck with your creative pursuits 🙂

    • Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll come back for more–I think it’s important to break down the magic and mysticism people think exist in creative pursuits and show them for what they are–elbow grease, practical thinking, and a bit of strategy!

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