The Perks – and Perils – of “Write What You Know”

By Naomi Milliner

If I had a dollar (okay, maybe a hundred) for every time someone advised, “Write what you know,” I could buy a mansion… or at least a comfy townhouse in the poorer part of town. Not only that; it must be good advice because my debut middle grade novel is based on people and events in my life. So I know them very well indeed. And yet…

It took sixteen years for SUPER JAKE & THE KING OF CHAOS to be published. Turns out writing what you know can be harder than you think. At least, it was for me. Let’s give a few examples.

  1. In real life, the names of my three sons began with the letter “J.” When the characters’ names also began with “J,” I was told it was “too confusing.”
  2. In real life, my youngest son, Jake, had special needs and worked with five therapists, one each day, Monday through Friday. For the story, I was told that was way too many.
  3. In real life, there was no actual antagonist – so I had to create one.

There were other changes too, and one was monumental – but revealing it here would give too much away. You’ll just have to take my word for it… or read the book.

            Still, the real problem was this: What I knew wasn’t enough. What I knew was a young boy with severe brain damage. In my heart, this book was always about Jake. But it wasn’t a memoir; it was middle grade fiction.

            It took many critiques over many years for me to understand that my 11-year-old hero, Ethan, needed his own storyline. It was Ethan’s story, not Jake’s. It wasn’t a story about a boy with special needs, or a boy whose brother had special needs. It was about a boy with hopes and dreams and struggles of his own – who happened to have a brother with special needs. When I look back now, it seems more of a “duh” moment than a “ah-ha!” epiphany.

            I think this is the downside of “write what you know.” There were countless times in my critique group when any one of us said to another, “That doesn’t make sense,” or “That’s really hard to believe.” And the writer under fire always responded, “But that’s what happened in real life!”

            Lesson learned the hard way: just because something “really happened” doesn’t make it believable in a fictional world. Just because telling Jake’s story was foremost in my mind when I started writing it, didn’t make it his story. And just because I knew my subject matter inside and out, didn’t mean I knew the best way to tell it.

            So for what it’s worth, here’s my advice: Write what you know, then figure out what you don’t. Leave enough of what’s real to keep it honest and authentic, but add enough fiction to turn it into a real story.

Naomi Milliner has a Bachelor’s Degree in English and a Master’s in Screenwriting from USC Film School. As a long-time member of SCBWI, she created the Authors Book Club (ABC) for published authors and illustrators to share their journey with other members. She has also served on the Women’s National Book Association’s Great Group Reads Committee since 2009. Super Jake & the King of Chaos is her first novel, and is inspired by her family. She lives in Maryland, with her husband and sons, and two ridiculous felines.

3 comments

  1. I totally get what you mean about real life sometimes not being believable. Yesterday my daughter cut her toe on her brother’s tooth, but if I were to put that in a story, I would be told it wouldn’t actually happen in real life! 😀

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  2. Great advice! And great overview of the pitfalls of writing what you know! Love that you suggest write what you know, keep enough to be honest and authentic, then add to it and turn it into a great story. Congratulations!

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  3. Dear Naomi: congratulations! As I read through your post, I kept nodding my head in total agreement. Often, truth IS stranger than fiction, and you nailed it when you said, “Leave enough of what’s real to keep it honest and authentic, but add enough fiction to turn it into a real story.”

    Liked by 2 people

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