Write What You Know

One of my favorite books of all time is Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Maybe someday I’ll actually write a post just on it, but for now I was skimming through old favorite parts and I ran across something I think is so crucially important to writing.

So a little backstory for those who don’t know. Fangirl is about a young English major named Cath who goes off to her first year of college and spends most of her time sort of hiding in the magical world of Simon Snow, a magical series of books that she is utterly obsessed with. She’s entered into a fiction writing class for upperclassmen, and she has trouble when she tries turning in fanfiction for some of her assignments.


She and her professor have a conversation at one point that goes something like this:

Professor Piper nodded. “You said something last time that I’ve been thinking about–you said that you didn’t want to build your own world.”

Cath looked up. “Yes. Exactly. I don’t have brave new worlds inside of me begging to get out. I don’t want to start from nothing like that.”

“But Cath–most writers don’t. Most of us aren’t Gemma T. Leslie.” She waved her hand around the office. “We write about the worlds we already know. I’ve written four books, and they all take place within a hundred and twenty miles of my hometown. Most of them are about what happened in real life.”

“So everything in your books is true?”

The professor tilted her head and hummed. “Mmmm…yes. And no. Everything starts with a little truth, then I spin my webs around it–sometimes I spin completely away from it. But the point is, I don’t start with nothing.” (307 Rowell).

Rowell, Rainbow. Fangirl. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013. Print.

I read this novel going into my senior year, finally taking the fiction writing course my college offered. The amount that I related to Cath was enormous, just in being a shy and confused English major and having trouble interacting with others etc etc etc. But I really related to her when it came down to my final fiction writing project.

My whole life I’ve tried weaving fantasy worlds. Occasionally I’ve branched out and written something more real, but for the most part I’ve always been taken with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and knights and dragons and fairies and other things not of this world. But for my final project I just kept drawing a blank. Coming up with a fantasy world was one thing, being able to contain it into a short story was another. And so I knew I needed to do as Professor Piper had suggested. I needed to start from something. I needed to pull in real world knowledge.

Last year I really strove to be better at standing up for myself. I’m usually quite terrible at it in general Especially when it comes to saying no. Even in the last week I didn’t say no to a friend when she asked me to do something I didn’t want to, and I bought something I didn’t need from a little girl who came to my door. I’m still working on it. I’m still getting better. But this last semester I did try better at speaking out in some difficult circumstances, especially in ending a friendship seven years in the making. Because I realized after a while that I had to stop being nice, that I needed to start standing up for myself and saying no. And in a moment of inspiration, I decided I should write about that.


I did. It was beautiful and fulfilling. Almost more so than making magic worlds or watching my characters live happily ever after. I was able to share an experience I’d had with the world. I was able to capture how hard it is to say no, but how crucial it is at the same time.

I’m still considering trying to send the story out, otherwise I’d put it up here for you to read.

The point I’m trying to make is sometimes you have to dig into yourself to find something worth writing about. Maybe it’s not as exciting on the surface as creating something completely new or magical, or writing about something in another country or another world, or going back in time. But it’s meaningful because it includes your passion and emotions. I think it gives people something more concrete to sympathize with. I felt particularly pleased when my professor commented in class “Oh I think most of us have had something like this happen before.”

So, has anyone else had a moment of real life you’ve decided to use as a catalyst? Do you feel like most of the time you write what you’ve experienced or create from nothing? How do you find yourself being inspired?


Filed under Writing

16 responses to “Write What You Know

  1. Just what I needed to read right now as I’m stuck in my writing rut. Thank you for you inspiring words!!

  2. Once again you’ve posed a question I don’t know how to answer. I’ll have to think about it. For the most part I think I’m best at just writing what I experience. I’m sure glad I bumped into you, Emily. I am learning so much from following your journey. {{{E}}}

    • Aw thank you so much! I’m glad you were able to take away a question to ponder over. Hope you find some answers eventually but it is a tough one for sure. Thanks for your lovely comment!

  3. I hope you get your story published- it sounds like it would be a great read.

    You’ve touched on a very interesting thing in your post- t the foundation of any great story is the characters. It doesn’t matter how brilliant a world is if its population is bland. True great characters come from the heart and from using our experience to bring them to life.

    My favorite stories tend to be the ones that have a strong human element, someone you can feel a real connection with. The beauty of great fiction worlds like Harry Potter isn’t the setting (though of course it’s fantastical) but the connection you feel to the characters. It makes you care about what they are doing almost more than where they are doing it.

    • Fantastic point that I definitely would agree with. So even if you’re creating a new world you might be writing what you know in taking characters and situations and human emotion you’ve experienced and putting it in. Very true. Thanks so much for commenting!

  4. Jeremy

    When you’ve mastered the art of saying no, let me know. I could use some training too.

    Love this post. Write what you know is definitely the base for great writing, which is why fantasy writing seems like such a hard thing to do. Although I think that even those stories are based on some of the writer’s core beliefs.

    • I don’t think it’s possible to master that art, but I think it’s possible to get better at not being a doormat, which I too often am. And yes I definitely would agree that even a fantasy author can incorporate some of what they know be it in beliefs or in situations or characters. It just might be a bit more difficult than with a realistic fiction book. Thank you for commenting!

  5. Such a great post! I’ve spent a lot of time writing fantasy, but my current projects are inspired more by this very idea–trying to put my human experience into a story that other people can really relate to. In a lot of ways, it’s way harder than writing fantasy for me, but so much more rewarding. I love getting feedback from writing buddies that says, “Oh, I totally feel this character’s pain!” or “That’s definitely happened to me!” It’s the beauty of story bringing us all together.

    Also, I tagged you in the 3 days, 3 quotes challenge. If you’d like to participate, you can read about it on my blog: https://bumblesbooks.wordpress.com/2015/08/16/day-3-quote-3/. If not, I won’t be offended. 🙂 I love your blog so much!

    • Thanks so much for tagging me! I’ll have to check that out and I might do it, we’ll see. Life’s getting busy just now, but it might be a good excuse to get some blog posts up. Thanks again!

  6. Pingback: Another Liebster Award! | Sara Letourneau's Official Website & Blog

  7. Great post 🙂 Although it’s hard to get inspired when you sit down to write, I feel that some of my best blog posts have often stemmed from my experiences or flyaway comments I’ve heard during the day.

    PS – Would love to read your story sometime (whenever you’re ready to share it with us :))

    • Aw thank you! Yes I’m still hoping maybe I could get it published someday, but if I really never find the time to even try maybe I’ll put it up on my blog someday. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

  8. Pingback: Landline by Rainbow Rowell | She Reviews Everything

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