Write What You Know … Or Branch Out

Mark Paxson

We’ve talked about this on our video chats and, who knows, maybe one of us has posted on here about this, but recently Audrey wrote a post on her blog about writing from the POV of somebody not like you.

Audrey writes about the reasons writers can do this and offers some tips about how she goes about trying for authenticity when she writes from the perspective of a character who has lived a life that is not like hers. I think her ideas for how to go about it are spot on, and get to a few things I want to discuss here.

First, she mentions drawing on observations made over the course of a lifetime. Absolutely 1,000%. If writers aren’t observing the world and the people around them and using those observations to ground their stories in authenticity, than I’m not sure how they write. Audrey mentions both conscious and unconscious observations. I think that’s key. It’s not just about what we consciously notice, it’s also about the things that happen that don’t register, but they inform our sense of human nature, which can go a long way towards informing our imagination and how we might write a story from a POV that is not exactly our own.

Second, Audrey talks about how important is to read and obseve characters, in books and in movies and on television. Again, the importance of this cannot be emphasized enough. People ask me how I write what I write. How I come up with some of my stories. The only answer I have to that is that I have read my entire life. It is simply what I do, more than anything else, I read. After 50 years of doing so, I have an idea of what a story looks like, how characters do things, and how to structure stories. I don’t know how a person can write fiction without also reading it. Wallowing in it. And learning from that.

I get a giggle out of one of the reactions I’ve seen from some readers of my first novel. The story was a legal “thriller.” A criminal matter that meandered towards a trial that … well, that’s all you need to know. A novel about a criminal case that ended up in court. I’m an attorney. Some readers have commented that my knowledge of the law and criminal law made the story more believable, more authentic. But, here’s the secret.

I’ve never practiced or done anything as a professional involving criminal law. Nor was I ever a litigator, so I never spent much time in courtrooms. Yes, I get it, as an attorney, even if I didn’t practice criminal law, I have a bit of knowledge that others may not have. I took Criminal Procedure. I took Criminal Law. I spent four years in law school. That can add something. But, here’s the deal — how did I come up with the detail for the courtroom scenes and the jury selection and the questionining of witnesses, and the ultimate outcome of the novel? Through all of the reading I’ve read over the years. Through the observations I’ve made in watching people in real life and in movies and on televicion. All of those stories and visual images helped inform how to put my novel together.

Meanwhile, as I’ve said in our video chats, the stories I am most proud of are the ones where I can say, not just that the POV is not mine or based on any experience I’ve had, but that the entire detail of the story is contrary to anything I’ve experienced. A story in which the narrator is a 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. A story in which the narrator is a young white woman dating a black man in the racist South. A story in which the three different primary narrators are two 16-year-old kids and a 20-year-old, two of the three being female. The list could go on.

I get the idea behind “write what you know.” At least from the start. When I wrote that first novel, I could put myself in the place of the main character and write based on the idea of “how would I react to this situation,” but at some point I think writers should try to stretch the boundaries. Use your imagination. Use your observations. Use what you’ve read and seen over the course of your life time. And make something new and creative. See what you can do.


  1. Chuck Litka says:

    Like you, Mark, everything I know about story telling I learned – no, not learned; absorbed from reading. And I think it shows. Thankfully, I’ve lived an uneventful life, so I have no stories to tell from my life. In real life, an adventure is what I call an unpleasant experience in the past, i.e. “Well, that was an adventure.” I don’t want adventures. Instead, the stories I write are often inspired by stories I’ve read or watched. I guess you can say that my stories originate from, and remain within, the world of fiction; the world of make-believe.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. kingmidget says:

      A lot of my characters are based on people I’ve met or observed in life. The setups for my stories are a creature of my imagination. But how I get from point A to B to C to the eventual end of a story is based almost entirely on my imagination informed by the lifetime of reading I have done.


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