Monday, September 22, 2014

Write what you know. Really? - Lisa Hall-Wilson

That seemingly age-old writing advice used to grate on me. I wasn’t interested in writing what I knew about. How boring would that be? I’ve never been a male firefighter (yes, I have a penchant for romance), an FBI special agent (I’ve delved into suspense), an Amazon warrior (how boring would life be without fantasy) or been chased by a serial killer (I’m also a big horror fan). I’d be relegated to the mommy-lit section, or the not-so-desperate housewife literary novel section, and that just doesn’t put the sugar in my candy.

There’s more wisdom to this piece of advice than at first glance, but it took several years for me to stop fighting it. This isn’t a box I’m being forced into, but the safety lines that keep me from hitting author-rock-bottom. And I’m still learning more layers to this piece of wisdom, so my first tip is not to dismiss this out of hand as I first thought to do.

Societies, languages, technology, scientific discovery – these are all things that can evolve, change and grow. Human emotions don’t. The degree to which we experience that range of emotions varies from person to person, the situations that can cause those emotions may differ, but the basic emotional wringer we go through is the same one Noah and Moses went through.

These two verses really opened my eyes to the truth found in the “Write What You Know” advice.

“For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven” (Eccl. 3:1 NLT).

“History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new” (Eccl. 3:9 NLT).

In listening to Ted Dekker’s continuing class CDs from Write! Canada (you knew you could buy CD’s of most of the sessions, right?), I was surprised to hear Ted say, “You can’t write what you don’t know.”

Ted writes fantasy, thrillers, and what he calls storyteller books (with a couple of non-fiction books in there too). Here’s a snippet from his talk:

“You can’t write what you don’t know. If you do, people won’t buy your characters…Generally speaking, we write out of our experiences. Whatever that pool of experiences is…

“I find areas to write about that I’ve never been in myself, and that allows me to step out of my own context and see things with fresh eyes. Do you know heartbreak? You can’t write about heartbreak until your heart has been broken…Don’t write about what you don’t know about.”  

Every character I write, is me. If I want my characters to reach out of the book and grab the reader by the throat or the heart, they have to be motivated by an emotion I’ve experienced. Every year longer I live, I find more depth to the emotions I can write about.

A teen being forced to choose between parents in a divorce. I’ve never lived this, but I know what it’s like to desperately want to avoid hurting someone I love, or disappointing someone I love. I know what it’s like to feel like I lose no matter what choice I make.

A firefighter who’s discovered his wife is in an adulterous relationship. This isn’t something I’ve lived out, but I understand being blindsided by betrayal. I understand the singular focus of just putting one foot in front of the other because I just don’t know what else to do.

A battered mother finally makes a choice to leave an abusive husband. I understand what it’s like to talk yourself into and out of a decision a thousand times. I understand doing something for the sake of someone you love, because you wouldn’t do it just for yourself.
Dig down into the very root emotions motivating your characters, and find some common ground. Once you do that, the degree to which you experienced those emotions becomes irrelevant. Once you have common ground, once that character becomes you - you can write from their perspective. 

Writing this way is hard, not gonna lie. You have to relive some things that will be painful, bittersweet, and difficult -- but so what. Pouring that reality into your characters brings them to life. This is the job of a writer. It will cause your readers to laugh, cry, pull the blanket closer, sleep with the light on. And aren't those the best kinds of books?

Go ahead and try this! It’ll change your writing.

Lisa Hall-Wilson is an award-winning freelance journalist and writer for the Canadian faith-based market. Lisa writes a syndicated interview column, blogs at, and spends way too much time on Facebook.

1 comment:

Peter Black said...

Lisa, interesting and helpful post . . . makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing Ted Dekker's insights and those from your own experience. ~~+~~

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