Don’t Just Write What You Know—Write What You Feel

Write what you know. One of the oldest adages about writing, this exhortation is often bandied about in creative writing classes and books across the industry. At first blush, it seems to have merit. Just look at Hemingway. He fished marlin off the coast of Cuba, drove an ambulance in Italy during WWI, and rubbed elbows with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and other modernist expatriates in Paris during the 1920s. All of these experiences undoubtedly contributed to the storylines of The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms, and The Sun Also Rises. But were these works great because Hemingway was writing about what he knew? And is being intimately familiar with your subject a prerequisite to writing compelling fiction?
I can only speak from my own experience and observation of other writers, but in my humble opinion your emotional connection with your subject is far more important than your knowledge of the subject. In other words, write about what inspires you to get up every morning and put words on the page. That is the core of story. 

 Don’t get me wrong—writing about a subject you’re familiar with goes a long way. After all, I am a practicing attorney who writes legal thrillers. The first few reviews I received for my debut novel, Foreclosure, remarked on how easily the narrative translated legalese for the reader. Having practiced commercial litigation in Florida for more than a decade undoubtedly helped me to write the novel. However, without the emotional connection to what I was writing, my knowledge of Florida mortgage law and civil procedure would have been useless. What really inspired the book was my frustration with ethics in the legal profession as well as my own anxiety about succeeding during the recession. Sure, I knew what I was writing about—but more importantly, I cared about my subject. 

 Indeed, the ideal subject for your story is where your experience, knowledge and emotional connection intersect. Find that, and you’ve discovered writer’s manna from heaven. But of those three elements, I believe the emotional connection is the indispensable one. 

 For example, I once wrote a screenplay about an ex-con from the Bronx whose former mob boss blackmailed him into driving a Russian prostitute around New York City. While I never sold the screenplay, it did help me land a Hollywood manager for a while. Suffice it to say, I knew absolutely nothing about my subject in that story. So what did I do? I researched. I researched about the sex slave trade, the Russian mob, and New York’s criminal justice system. These things ultimately rang true because I got the research right, but that was fueled by my connection with the story—not the plot, but the underlying themes of oppression and redemption. (Incidentally, my relationship with the aforementioned manager ended when I agreed to take on a project he had pushed heavily but with which I had no emotional connection. No amount of research in the world was going to assist my writing of that story because I didn’t believe in it). 

 The key to writing compelling fiction is to convey what you feel—what you care about, what frightens you, what makes you laugh, what you want to tell the world—into a narrative that readers will relate to on a primal level. That is the fuel of good story. While writing about what you know may save you some time in the library down the road, it in no way guarantees a great story. For that, you need to go deeper and uncover what it is that’s really driving you to write. Critics will forever argue about what that was for Hemingway. Regardless, find what that is for your story and you’ll be on your way to creating a memorable experience for your reader.

S.D. Thames grew up in the Midwest but has lived in the Tampa Bay area since 1992. When he's not working as a litigation partner at a national law firm, he's writing mysteries and legal thrillers exploring the dark side of the Sunshine State. His first novel, an offbeat legal thriller set during Florida's housing crash of 2008, was be published through Kindle in September, 2015.

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  1. Good advice here for all writers. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us.

  2. This is really well written article and good advice within! I try to improve my writing skills by learning different experiences and creating my own style. I can highlight “Writing Your Way to an “A”” the article that must be read as well as this one.


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