Write What You Know? Ahem…

I don’t think so.

If I only wrote what I knew, I would never have:

  • Created a 1st-person, 12-year-old boy protagonist
  • Written a scene at a skate-board park that ends in a get-away race to safety
  • Listened to many explanations of DNA-matching and written about it for 7-year-olds (Hi, Lee!)
  • Taken a trip to Chicago to visit Hull-House
  • Collected two shelves of research books that have me wanting to read (and write) down many, many new paths
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we do and can stretch our brains. My husband just finished reading Barbara Strauch’s The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain (now so overdue at the library, I have to take it back and THEN check it out again for myself to read (Hi, Amytha!)), and he’s been reading me bits and pieces–mostly focused on the fact that, as we get older, our brain does not shrivel up, atrophy, and basically die.
Despite what our teenage children may be telling us.
I think I knew this–I am in many ways much more open to new experiences, new knowledge. Okay, maybe not so much to new opinions, but I just think of that as continuing to grow my stubbornness synapses. (Hi, Mom!) But working on a historical novel has got me thinking about it more, really recognizing what we can do if we try. There is so much I’m putting into my book that I cannot know, not in the sense people talk about for writers. I can’t march through DC with the other suffragists; I can’t sit down and listen to Ida B. Wells anger at being asked to walk at the back of that march. I can’t walk through all the buildings in the Hull-House complex in 1913; I can’t share a room with Jane Addams and experience the warmth and power so many people have written about. And, honestly, I don’t really want to go to Chicago in the middle of a blizzard and stand around for an hour or three to see how it feels.
But I can learn. I can push myself not only to read the research, but to imagine the feelings, to close my eyes–and stretch my brain–while I take what I do know and extrapolate outward to a much bigger world of understanding.
Write what I know? Only that? No, thanks!


  1. And, honestly, I don’t really want to go to Chicago in the middle of a blizzard and stand around for an hour or three to see how it feels. (LOL)

    Hear! Hear!

    Working on some stubborness synapses myself!


    • beckylevine says:

      I’m wondering how much I can pay my sister to do the standing for me! She says she’ll read the book for me to check on the cold factor. 🙂


  2. Great post, Becky. Most of us do best when we write what we know. But it’s fun to explore outside our comfort zone, to see what else is out there.


    • beckylevine says:

      I think we explore & then find the thing that we do know, that resonates with us–even if it’s not a fact or a place, but an emotion, a connection. And that becomes the base of the truth we write around.


  3. I always like the idea that we write what we are passionate about, what we want to know more about.

    Am I passionate about airplanes? No. But can I substitute writing or native plants or art for flying and understand that passion? Yes.


  4. I’m sorry to be coming so late to these comments and recognize that it’s possible no one will see this one. But I feel strongly about writing what you know. I think it often makes the difference between good and so-so, if not out right bad, writing. I would argue that when writers do research, the research becomes something they know. If you did research on DNA-matching, you now know about DNA-matching. If went to Chicago to visit Hull House, you now know about Hull House, something that tens of thousands of people don’t know about because, unlike you, they haven’t been there.

    Any knowledge writers acquire through research becomes part of what they know, and, thus, they are writing what they know.


    • beckylevine says:

      Gail, I think you’re totally right–it does become what we know, but it can feel overwhelming at times and create the temptation to back off, to take on something we’re already totally familiar with. That, I don’t want to do. 🙂


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