Authentic Writing: ‘write what you know’ or stretch your imagination?

Every writer has gotten the advice to ‘write what you know’. It was my first bit of writing advice too. I believe there are two scenarios to look at when discussing ‘writing what you know’. Firstly, authenticity. Secondly, the limits of your imagination.

Authenticity is paramount to my decisions about taking on authors. The authentic voice that doesn’t seem forced, that seems effortless (but requires extensive effort to create) paired with natural dialogue is what lets you leap into the book with the characters. This authenticity often comes from knowing what you are writing from either having lived it or being closely connected to it.

Research, research, research for authenticity.

However, career writers should be able to write about any location or type of character and make it authentic. The best compliment an author can get is a review that proclaims the writer must have lived in the location of the book setting to get such prolific accuracies of culture, voice, and characters when actually, they had never been there at all! This is the gift of imagination paired with extensive research. For example, the amazingly talented Helen Dunmore’s critically acclaimed pair of novels The Siege and The Betrayal set in Leningrad from 1941-53 were pure research that ‘grew from a lifelong love of Russian history, culture and literature’.

Early in writers’ careers they often write what they know, but the turning point is leaving the world of semi-autobiographical novels behind and delving into unknown territory with only your interests and writing talent to guide you. It can be freeing and limitless when you can let go of the boundaries you set for yourself. Separating yourself from being part of the reflection in your work leaves you room to create characters that are disliked, villainous, overly sympathetic, and challenged by a world that you have not personally experienced. When you let go the notion that readers will pass judgment on you personally for the characters or plot you create you are able to manipulate your text, and thus readers’ emotions, to the vast expanses of your imagination.

However, as Helen Dunmore’s novels suggest, it takes years to research accurately and emphatically, but ultimately worth the work. Writing what you know from your personal experiences, or what you can imagine to occur, paired with research on what you have yet to know can result in the illuminating execution readers are looking for.

(Image via Teleread)

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Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

7 thoughts on “Authentic Writing: ‘write what you know’ or stretch your imagination?

  1. For writing, there are so many styles and different things people can do for their writings. Like you’ve mentioned here – there is a difference between doing the research and letting your interest and muse guide you. Both can have amazing results; it all comes down to how it’s done.


    1. Absolutely. It’s hard to explain creative processes sometimes, but reflecting is how you grow. Ideally, your muse will lead you to researching projects that are of interest. I’m always interested in how clients and query-ers come to work on the topics they do.


      1. I think the best research is done about topics you enjoy. Granted, one should write about things one enjoys as well. For me, for example; I am extensively researching Ancient Egyptian history and their pantheon, for a future novel (or more than one), which focuses on Egyptian mythology. I’ve always been fascinated with that part of history, so researching it is fun and that helps me absorb the information easier.


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