#WriteTip: Writing What You Know Versus What You Don’t by Jason Pellegrini

Jeri Walker
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Jeri Walker
Jeri Walker
Jeri Walker
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The tendency of writing what you know varies from author to author. Imagination makes countless scenarios possible on the fictitious page, but a degree of crafting goes into creative nonfiction as well. At any given point, writers are in varying degrees of shaping reality based on what they know and don’t know. Jason Pellegrini is here today with his first guest post ever to share his thoughts on age-old advice of writing what you know. 

 

Official Bio:  Jason Pellegrini is a Long Island native. He currently resides in Levittown, New York. His works include Booth and The Replacement.

 

Writing What You Know Versus What You Don’t

Every writer who has any sought of guidance in order to improve their craft has heard the same few popular phrases when it comes to writing. Guidelines that are meant to help aid aspiring authors to better their work. One extremely popular one is to “show the reader, don’t tell them.” Another one that gets thrown around a lot is to “write what you know.” The latter quote is one I personally agree with fully in one aspect, yet disagree with completely in another.

 

Image of author Jason Pellegrini

 

When it comes to writing what you know, I have found out firsthand that there is only so much we can take from our own lives that we can apply to our stories before we have to look elsewhere for inspiration. However, there is also an endless amount of ourselves we can contribute to our stories.

 

The ability to create is one of the greatest traits one can inherit. I have been fortunate enough to have that creative spark. Throughout my life I have channeled my creativity through various outlets, such as art and music, until finally making the decision to focus all my energy on writing fiction. It wasn’t long before the story ideas were coming to me, and I got to work.

 

In 2015, I released my debut novel, The Replacement. That was followed by my second release, Booth, in late 2016. Both novels contain content and touch on subject matters in which I know nothing about, and had to research. Yet in both novels there is a part of me I had to tap into to create the believable characters that help grip the reader, and move the story along.

 

Image of Booth book cover by Jason Pellegrini

 

With Booth, there was a decent amount of content I decided I wanted to incorporate into the story that I knew very little or absolutely nothing about. One thing that comes immediately to mind is the death penalty. Having a character on Death Row during the 1990s, I had to do a lot of research on which states allowed the death penalty during the timeframe my story took place, which ones carried out the death sentence by the electric chair, as well as the step-by-step procedure of executing someone via the electric chair. On top of that, I had to do research on trial proceedings for a murder case of the magnitude portrayed in my story. I, admittedly, took a few liberties here and there, but I think all creative liberties an author takes must be grounded by some sense of reality.

 

One prominent subject matter that appears in Booth that I was completely unfamiliar with is racism. Early on in the creative process I made the decision I was going to have a violently racist character in my story, and, not being a racist in my own life, I had to come to grips with my decision to write into my story a subject that I was not only uncomfortable with, but one I was completely unfamiliar with.

 

In order to create racist characters, what I had to do is look outwards towards the world. Racism still exists in the twenty-first century, and as much as we would not like to be exposed to it, it’s there if you know where to look. Living in the age of media and Internet is a tremendous benefit to authors, who want to touch on subjects they know very little about. In my case, I was able to take what I had seen in the news, read in articles, and even seen in movies, such as American History X and Gran Torino, and apply it to my creation to portray the character I wanted in the story.

 

Despite having to sometimes look elsewhere and do some research for our novels, there is still so much of ourselves we, as writers, pour into our work. Characters are the life force of any novel. They are the air that the author breathes into a story that brings it to life. I personally believe that it is the characters that helps drive the story, and not so much the plot—although, an interesting plot is definitely important to a story! To get readers to invest, a writer needs to make their characters believable enough for the reader to invest, and care what happens to them.

 

What better way to make characters seem human than to draw from personal experiences. After all, writers are all human, and have experienced every emotion there is across the board. If we don’t apply human characteristics, such as emotions, to characters, the reader is never going to truly invest, no matter how interesting a storyline might be.

 

Image of The Replacement book cover by Jason Pellegrini

 

Personally, I believe that the devil is in the details. For those unfamiliar with the saying, I think that it’s the small things in a story that helps bring it to life. My first story, The Replacement, takes place in Levittown, New York; the town where I grew up. In one of the early chapters I paint a picture of the kind of town Levittown is. I did this to help set the mood for the reader. In order to accurately portray that suburban feel Levittown is known for, I drew on the feelings of my hometown that resonated with me.

 

There’s a specific scene in The Replacement, where my protagonist, Patrick Sullivan, is jogging through the streets, and he thinks to himself that the streets are so winding and confusing that he could live there are twenty years, and find himself on a street that he had never known existed. I gave him that thought, because it is something I have repeatedly thought while driving or jogging through the Levittown streets. It was also something that happened to me right after the release of The Replacement, so I was literally living out the thought inside my own character’s head.

 

We don’t know everything, and not every author has lived an over-the-top life—like myself. That doesn’t mean we don’t have exciting ideas that we want to bring to life. In order to do that we have to venture out of our comfort zone, and touch upon that we know nothing about until we’ve started our story. Still, there is so much of ourselves that gets poured into our stories that bring the character who the readers are choosing to go on a journey with to life.

 

 

Where do you fall on the spectrum of writing what you know versus what you don’t know?

 

You can connect with Jason Pellegrini and his social media sites vis his author website.

 

 

Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2017.

Author: Jeri Walker

Need help writing that book blurb, bio, or newsletter? Give your book the attention it deserves. Book your copy edit, manuscript critique, or proofread today. Promotional discounts change monthly.

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20 Comments

  1. Really found this discussion interesting. I have read novels in which I clearly thought that the author was writing only about his or her self and experiences. That didn’t make it less interesting but probably makes me hesitate to read a second novel by the same person. If you only write about what you know I think you ultimately narrow your audience.

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  2. I agree with Jason about writing what you know, that we often have to go into new territory for inspiration but what we know helps build the story. One piece of advice I came across which I really like is “write what interests you”.

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  3. I enjoyed reading this article. Characters are what draw me to a book and leave me gasping to read until the end. Yes, the plot should have a few twists and turns but I want to know about the characters – so much so that I have a picture of them in my mind.

    There is a responsibility of the writer to bring his characters to life. Personal experience helps as well as descriptions of places. Readers like to get a feel of the setting – it allows us to go on a journey with the characters.

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  4. Yes, I related a great deal to many aspects of this. The ‘rules’ of writing should be a point of reference–much like a recipe for a dish, that over time you make your own. With the world at our fingertips in this modern age, together with our artistic dispositions, I feel, such as an actor might, that I mentally become the characters I portray through research and people watching, whether that’s in person or through the media. I close my eyes and am transported into whatever environment, whatever mind-set – such as the astronaut character I’ve been writing about recently, and his near future space ship (who knew there was so much to know about space suits and malleable materials they make windows out of) until I feel it is authentic. As is my tendency, I created a disturbed character whose mind-set had to fit with a privileged lifestyle and education that are completely different to my own experience – yet, there I am still, in that character whom I often live vicariously through (otherwise I might get arrested). I too think characters carry the story, at least for mine they do, and when people (used to) ask, “Are you in the book?” I used to say: “Of course, I am . . . Oh, but did you mean as just ONE character? Gawd, no . . . My mindset is far too complex to allow that.” If I were to ask my characters for the ‘real me’ to stand up, I think they all would – regardless age, sex or species.

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  5. Hi Jason, Nice to hear your views about the topic. I have always felt most comfortable about writing what we know as it is stress-free and effortless. Having said that I would like to incorporate the magic of the imaginative world, which gets ignited once we pick up the pen and start rolling with the words. Poetry is one such genre…one little raindrop, one little memory connected with it can take me much beyond what I know and sometimes bewilders me with the poem before me! The power of our mind is incredible!

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  6. Good perspective on the writing what you know theme…and making up the rest. No matter what genre we write in, we have to start with what we know and then fill in and make it interesting by making up worlds that hopefully are believable to our readers. Well said.

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  7. I often model my characters on someone I know well and I take them on wild rides – so a bit of both I suppose. I agree that the details work better if they’re ground in some kind of reality so I do a lot of research.

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  8. I agree with Jason when talks about writing about what you know. As a story teller this does resonate with me. When we are true to what we know it reflects and speaks to being genuine. It’s gives us a better shot at being successful as a writer.

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  9. I don’t write fiction, and I believe you’ll always be more comfortable writing about what you know. But I personally enjoy the challenge of tackling a subject I know nothing about but would like to. I find the research exciting and the satisfaction of writing something well and becoming a pseudo expert!

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  10. A well-argued point and post! And anyway, research can be a lot of fun, as long as it doesn’t take you down so many rabbit holes that it’s a roadblock to writing. Thanks, Jason and Jeri!

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  11. Yes, the devil is in the details as is the sense of credibility—in even the most incredible stories!

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  12. Great post! It’s something I think about a lot, partly because I’m writing historical fiction at the moment, and sadly I can’t time travel 🙁 I think the trick is to write what you emotionally know – you don’t need to literally have experienced everything your characters have, you just need to have felt the fear, loneliness, love, they have.

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  13. Hi Jason, thanks for sharing a bit about your writing process and your tips. I agree that we tend to put a lot of ourselves in our characters. It’s also rewarding to create characters completely different than ourselves. I had an old lady character pop into my head one day. She’s assists her local police force with crime solving. I know absolutely nothing about crime solving or being a private investigator (other than television shows). What would we do without the internet? I have no idea why this character came to me. I hope to make an interesting plot for her. Your books look mysterious! Two novels in two years is quite an accomplishment. Jeri, thanks for introducing Jason here at your blog and sharing his ideas.

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  14. Enjoyed the interview and I had to think about your question a little. As a nonfiction writer I started out focusing on specific areas that I had a lot of experience in, but over the years I’ve branched out. I had to otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with changes in science in general and psychology in particular. Thankfully, I’m curious by nature and a researcher at heart so the process is an enjoyable one for me where it might be boring as dirt to others.

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  15. I feel that a mix between writing from what you know and writing what you don’t know is good balance for writers. When I’m not blogging, I have wrote fiction as a hobby, which I started out by writing what I don’t know. But then as I got older, I started to understand the value of researching when it came to writing fiction. I didn’t put value into researching because I put as ” only for academic reasons”. I realized that writing what you don’t know without research can really make your story messy. Sometimes, even fiction worlds need some amount of realism to make it believable to readers.

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  16. Oh my my…keeping it short but sweet. This was like an important chapter for a newbie like me!

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  17. What an interesting and disturbing journey that must have been to write a believable racist character! I agree with the idea that you have to have a foot planted firmly in reality if your fiction is to be compelling.

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  18. I enjoyed reading about this interview. A good writer always manages to create interesting characters and scenarios so that the reader doesn’t give up reading. I would find this very difficult as I don’t have a very imaginative mind.

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  19. I know this concept always comes up.
    In a sense I think both are right. You may write about situations you have never been in, or people you might not know much about; however, writing is an expression of the human soul, and in that context we are all share, and we all share that common thread. So writing is always what you know.

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  20. Hi Jeri!
    A good read, thanks for sharing
    I truly agree with a point that good writer should not be limited by his own experience

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