Thursday, May 1, 2014

Why “write what you know” produces terrible books: putting a spin on reality.

clouds wtihin cloudsSome of the lamest writing advice is “write what you know.”  It’s lame because it doesn’t go far enough.  It doesn’t show you how to take what you know and make it exotic, exciting, delicious and fun.

These advice-givers fear that, like Shakespeare, we will set our stories in some exotic locale like Denmark or Venice (where Shakespeare himself never actually visited). That used to be acceptable, back when travel was rare and you might never meet an English-speaking person who had visited “darkest Africa.”  These days, when you can hop on a plane and be anywhere, and back in a week to tell the tale, you can’t just make it up.

Fair enough. I think we all have this urge to make our writing exotic and interesting. Indeed, we may even confuse ourselves into believing they are one and the same.


Because most of us lead lives that FEEL as boring as paste.

We get up, go to work, take our children to soccer practice or dance class… and when we get home and sit down to write, we think, “why would anybody want to read about all of this?”

So we spice it up a bit, in an unnatural way: set our story in a more interesting city or make the characters wildly different from ourselves. Before we know it, we have written a terrible story about people we don’t know or understand.

But they’re different! They’re exotic! Why aren’t people lining up to read it?

Because it’s fake. It doesn’t really come from you, naturally. That’s where the advice comes from in the first place:  Write what you know or it will sound forced and awful. 

Sure, some people can pull off crazy exotic fiction and make it work. But I have a hunch that the best writers of “exotic” fiction, like science fiction and fantasy, don’t do much of that at all,  Fans of Star Trek (who, by the way, prefer to be called Trekkers, not Trekkies) know already that its creator, Gene Rodenberry, famously summed it up as “Wagon Train in space.” He took something close and familiar and, with a small twist, made it exotic.

You can do that, too.  What all those folks muttering “write what you know” don’t tell you is that you’ve got to take what you know and kick it way up… into another dimension.

Remember: Your life already IS exotic.

Maybe not to you, but to somebody, somewhere.

You just need a way to “spin” your current universe, pointing your camera at the most interesting parts, and figuring out what kind of story flows naturally from the world you know so well. The result won’t be “exotic,” but it will probably have a reality and depth that you’d have a hard time creating in an exotic venue that’s less familiar.

(Of course, if you want to build a whole entire universe from scratch, be my guest, but if you’re smart, you should probably concentrate on peopling it with characters and scenarios who, beneath their foreign exteriors, are reasonable similar to those in your “boring” real world.  Again, see Star Trek.)

People ask two questions when they think about setting a story in their own familiar world:

  • Isn't it too boring?
  • Isn’t it too foreign?

“My life is too boring!”

I won’t spend long on this, because I don’t have much patience for people who can’t find the fascinating details in their own lives. Me, I have four blogs… one for homeschooling (on hiatus at the moment), one for baking, one for writing kids’ books (hi!) and one for our Israel journey. Why? Because I believe every aspect of my own life is different and special enough to write about.

Just look at how a gifted writer like Judy Blume can take the sequence of cleaning a turtle tank and make it fascinating. There are no boring stories... Only writers who fail to find or capture that kernel of excitement.

“My life is too foreign!”

Some people figure they have the opposite problem: their life is too foreign, too weird, to write about honestly.

They’re probably wrong.

As religious Jews, living in Israel and speaking Hebrew every day, my family’s life probably looks rather different from yours. Heck, one day a week, we don’t even use electricity, or cook, or drive cars… we just hang out and go to synagogue. (I’ve heard it referred to as “being Amish for a day.”)

We do things differently when it comes to almost every aspect of our lives: what we eat, when and how; where we go to school, how we meet each other, date, get married, have kids (well, beyond the biologically obvious).

When religious Jewish writers want to write a kids’ story, they might be tempted to change things around to make the story more “generic.” Instead of girls’ names like Nechama or Tzippy, they’ll pick Mary or Sophie. They’ll show us nice, generic kids, going to school, playing with friends and being nice.

Just like Wonder Bread, this kind of writing is nice and clean and spongy (just threw that adjective in to see if you were paying attention), but there’s not much “bite” to it.

In the name of audience appeal, they’ve killed what might have made their story unique.

While it’s rarely a good idea to make your story about some arbitrary hyphenated “-American” just for diversity’s sake, if she happens to be Jewish, or Hispanic, or Persian, or live in a compound in Africa instead of a single family house (I’m thinking of the Anna Hibiscus books, which my kids loved, in part for their gritty depiction of life in Africa, right down to the legless beggars).

If you place your (interesting!) character and (interesting!) story in your “everyday” world, you’re free to play around, filling her life with delicious details that, if you introduce them skillfully enough, your readers will probably enjoy.

Don’t wedge the details in there artificially:

Leora took the bowl out of the ‘dairy’ cupboard, knowing her mother wouldn’t want her taking it from the ‘meat’ cupboard since the Levins, like all Orthodox Jews, who follow ancient laws called halacha, set out by the Torah, or Five Books of Moses, and passed down over the generations, keep two sets of dishes for meat and milk foods.


But if they flow naturally, they’ll make your story all the more interesting:

“I wish I could come to the dance,” said Leora, “but it’s Shabbat tomorrow night, and I need to stay home with my family.”

Shabbat?” asked Siena.

Yeah, it’s this weekly God thing we do.  It’s kind of cool.”

“Do you go to your church?”

My dad does, but mostly we just eat a fancy meal at home.  Want to come over and eat with us?  My mom loves having guests.”

Not great, but better.  I’ve thrown in a few details without feeling like I was getting up and teaching a Sunday-school lesson.  (Remember my Number One Mistake of Children’s Book Writers???)   This is the kind of spin I’m talking about.  Take what’s different about your setting, about your character, and make it an integral part of a great plot.

Simple.  ☺

Is there such a thing as “too exotic”?

I've never been to Shanghai, Mumbai, or Mombasa, let alone lived there. But I’ve read countless stories about life in these places and rarely experienced a moment’s confusion. In the hands of an expert writer, it's not only possible to overcome the obstacles, it may even be easier to draw readers in to a story with a more exotic setting or characters.

For the same reason that we're more willing to stretch our ideas and preconceptions of reality when watching an animated movie or reading a science fiction book. We suspend our disbelief and throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the more magical reality with which the writer presents us.

I’d love to hear your ideas for doing that – adding delicious real-life detail that keeps us and our kids reading and reading, over and over again.


  1. Great article, but write what you know, is not new advice. I learned this in Journalism classes at college over 30 years ago and I've been writing about my own life stories ever since. I haven't ventured out into writing something I don't know much about but maybe I should!

    1. Definitely old advice! But too few people know what to actually DO with it once they hear it... so they write boring stuff instead of exciting stuff; I just don't think that's the intention. :-) Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I think a lot of people know about farm-living grandparents, and that's why editors and publishers get so many kid-visiting-Grandpa's-farm stories. :-p

    1. Yeah, but that doesn't mean the genre is "full" or "finished." Tell it with a fascinating twist and you'll have something great on your hands! Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Dear Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod,

    Congratulations/mazal tov on another good essay. Sometimes, I write stories or poems about complex experiences that other people tell me about. I change some details and some of the characters so that I'm drawing on my knowledge base, too.

    Best wishes for the spring!

    Janet Ruth Heller, author
    Author of three poetry books, a scholarly book, and the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, hardback–2006, paperback–2007, e-book, audio, and Spanish edition–2008, 3rd paperback edition and iPad app–2012)
    Website is

  4. Hi Jennifer,

    Good point! You are absolutely right "writing what you know" isn't enough. It should be "write what you know and will learn by research". Life is about learning and we should never stop learning, thus at any given time in our lives we have learned more. If we are curious we learn faster, so "write what you know" should be evolving all the time. If you only write about what know at one set time soon you are out of date and irrelevant. "Write what know and will learn in your quest for knowledge", is closer to what the phrase should be.


As always, I love to hear from you.