How to Write What You Know

by Jeff Elkins | 36 comments

When I first started writing, I was advised to “write what you know.” While the advice was well intended, it left me sad because I don’t know much, and what I do know isn’t exciting enough to build fiction with.

Emotion: How to Write What You Know

Then, one day, it started to click for me. While I may not be a dragon-slaying knight or a criminal-catching detective, the emotions I experience on a daily basis can be used to bring those worlds to life.

An Emotion I Know

Yesterday I was watching my twenty-month-old son play in our front yard. He was running as fast as he could across the grass. Like the toddler he is, his desire to cross the yard outpaced his feet’s ability. About half way to the end of the yard, he stumbled and tumbled face first into the grass.

As I watched him fall, an ache of fear formed in my stomach. I immediately knew that feeling was something I could apply to characters in my story. After picking up, dusting off, and comforting my son, I found my journal and went to work.

3 Steps to Write What You Know

When I want to capture an emotion from my real life and apply it to my fiction, there are three things I do:

Step One: Journal the Emotion

After I’ve had an experience I know will translate into my fiction, I spend five minutes with my journal writing it down. My writing isn’t polished or meant to be seen by anyone else. It’s just notes to remind myself of the feeling. For example, my notes on the experience I mentioned above might read:

“Saw son running. Son fell. Pain/ache in stomach as the fall happened. Not sharp, more deep. Like a moan. Muscles tensed to brace for his fall. Things felt like they slowed down. Didn’t start moving until he hit the ground.”

Journaling my emotions takes less than five minutes. This isn't something I do during dedicated writing time. Once I’ve got my description down, I’ll go back to my day.

Step Two: Meditate on the Emotion and My Character

As I go through my day, I’ll try to imagine my character experiencing the same emotion. How would he/she process it? What would bring that emotional response in them? For my character, what is the equivalent to seeing his/her toddler fall?

While taking the time to process the emotion through my character’s voice slows my writing down, it pays off in the end. I find that when I spend a few hours meditating on my character’s response, the scene I write later will be richer.

Step Three: Write the Scene

After I’ve journaled the emotion and meditated on how my character would experience it, it's time to write the scene. If I’m writing a longer piece (like a novella or a novel), I don’t worry about building the scene into the story yet. I just want to get the emotional experience out. I try to start writing in the moment and push all the way through the emotion. After I have the scene out, I’ll come back and connect it to the rest of the story.

For example, I’m currently writing a novel about two homeless superheroes. I know that later in the story, one hero is going to be captured while his partner is forced to flee. While my partner has never been dragged away by monsters, I know how my character will feel because I've watched my son fall in the front yard.

Even though I won’t be able to connect this scene to the rest of the work for a few months, because the emotion I needed was fresh, I went ahead and wrote the scene. As my retreating hero watched his partner fall into the hands of the enemy, time froze. A deep moan of pain formed in his gut as he saw the monsters drag his friend away.

You Know More Than You Think

We may not be genius detectives, or courageous knights, or homeless superheroes, but the emotions we feel are universal and, if we can capture them, can be used as powerful tools to bring our writing to life. I believe this is one way we can “write what we know.”

What techniques do you use to “write what you know”? Let me know in the comments.


Today, pause to meditate on an emotion you experience. Then, take fifteen minutes to apply the emotion to a character you are working on. When you're done, share your practice in the comments, and remember to leave feedback for your fellow writers.

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Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."


  1. rosie

    Yay, that’s such a good explanation! We’re all limited in our knowledge but there are different ways of “knowing” things.

  2. Heather

    Journaling. Although I aspire to write non-fiction, I write my life stories in a journal most days of the week. I plan on using these stories in a non-fiction format. I look forward to this time of journaling everyday.

  3. Tina

    A journal can take many forms. Sometimes you can include pictures to describe things that you witnessed, but that did not happen to you. But you happened to be there at the time. Then, you get to more fully use these feelings that you never personally owned, in fiction work—less research involved. It helps if you have a good understanding of other people, even if just their everyday ordinary behavior, as I do. That is the minimal requirement.

    I cannot discriminate gradations and specifications of clinical maniacs—AT all. So I don’t try to write them. “Relative” normalcy or rationality is what I know.

    That does not mean that my character Gerrard couldn’t get Krisha to do weird things. I have the picture I took, years ago (i’d given them all negatives when asked [year of the flood])! He can, and would.

    {Book or series is supposed to be funny.}
    Maybe this does not make too much sense.

  4. Violet Azure

    This is really good advice for me. Whenever I wrote in a journal I always have tried to fit every detail into it and I think that’s why it isn’t working to well. I am going to try writing briefly like you did in your example above.

  5. ohita afeisume

    I find that normal, every day to day happenings in the home with members of my family if jotted down can be written about creatively to make for an interesting read.

    The happenings don’t have to be profound but the way and manner they are described takes these stories to another level altogether.

  6. Viv Sang

    This is a really useful post. So often ‘write what you

  7. Viv Sang

    Sorry about that. My iPad is playing up. I was saying that so often ‘write what you know means the times, places etc you know about, including the people and experieces you hhave. This is the first time I’ve seen a reference to emotions.

    I will certainly use a notebook or notes on my iPad in future. Thank you.

  8. Rodgin K

    I often find myself having to back off from what I know in the details of things. I spent a good portion of my early working life in a lumber yard and enjoy the details of woodworking, metalwork, and general crafting. While these details can add a lot, I have to keep in mind that the typical reader won’t care if it is oak or cherry that the table is made from, or that they used a “cool” forge method for repairing that piece of armor. While many people may like it, I’ve found that the time I spend on those details often makes for a longer write and a cumbersome read.

    That being said, emotions are something we all know and can twist to the betterment of our writing. So, practice. Here we go.

    Fear and aggression/hate are the two most poignant emotions I am familiar with. I spent a year in Baghdad with the Army, and while I did not witness anything the left long term scars, those two emotions are what have been forever burned into my memory. So, more Arcus to practice with.

    There had always been something in the old forests that Arcus missed, and up until this moment, he could not define it. That feeling of being incomplete while languishing away in the castle was lost out here as he stood face to face with the bear. The warning below of the mother bear rang not only in his ears, but in his heart; making it race in time with the vibrations. It was fear that he had missed, the fear brought on by survival.

    It was a feeling you couldn’t describe to others. It was at once crippling and enlivening, priming your body for action while leaving your mind blank for what to do with it. He had not felt in for almost six months, but it lived here in the old forest. Here, you were not better than nature, you were simply a part of it and as a part of it were required to find your place in it.

    Arcus refused to let his place be as a meal for this she-bear and her cubs. He was out of practice, placing himself between them, but he had something more work with now. He was not a druid, but he was not without his own tricks here. His steam pistol was drawn and fired before the bear could drop to all fours to charge him. The one was dropped as he drew a second pistol, that one also finding its mark.

    Blood rushed from both wounds as the bear lumbered forward, too stunned by the blows to truly charge him. A long knife came from his belt sheath and he charged the bear with his own warning cry. The bear, by instinct, would not back down and swatted at Arcus with giant, clawed paws that could tear a horse asunder. Arcus simply slid under the blow, sliding under the giant beast. His long knife cut deep through the thick fur, hide, and summers worth of stored fat, spilling more blood.

    The bear bellowed again, but this time in fear and pain. It limped away, still keeping itself between Arcus and her cubs. A look into the creature’s eyes was all Arcus needed. It now knew the fear of survival, just as he did.

    They had made their place as equals.

    • EndlessExposition

      This is great! I’m always wary when writers try to interpose an inner monologue with action, but you’ve done it to beautiful effect! The only criticism I have is a couple spelling errors here and there. Fantastic practice! I hope this makes it into whatever long term piece you’re working on.

  9. LilianGardner

    I love this advice to write what I know. It’s easier than having to ‘concoct’ some place or situations that I’m not familiar with. I once thought that if I wrote a story for Americans, Brits or any one living in the Western world, I’d have to write about their countries and cities. Now I know it’s better to write about places where I grew up and which I know.
    Referring to the theme for the forthcoming contest, Scars, I will write about the scars my friend has, and which he confided to me only a few years back. He was explicit. His childhood experiences made me shiver and detest the people who caused him incredible pain during his childhood. When I recall his words, I’m filled with strong emotions of sorrow and admiration for my friend for being a wonderful, loving person inspite of his ugly childhood, and also of despise and anger for his abusers.

  10. Iris Kirkland

    This is a great idea. It works perfect for some feelings I was having today about married life. I wrote it out like it can be a personal story type article. But I am writing my first book, this can be great for my book. Thank you.

  11. Jason

    This is one of the real and most natural ways to write into a story. Thank you.

  12. EndlessExposition

    I’ve been watching one of my favorite movies – Jason and the Argonauts – and the theme music always makes me want to go to the stable and go for a gallop. So, here’s my practice! It turned out a little longer than I anticipated but if you can spare the time, reviews are always appreciated!

    The room is dark, and all of the officers are sound asleep, including Kaya. That is until her comm device starts beeping. Blearily she startles awake and pats around her bedside table until her hand lands on the comm.

    KAYA: What?

    SHANNON (OVER COMM): Mornin!

    Kaya peers at her clock and groans.

    KAYA: Dammit, Crane, it’s 4:00.

    SHANNON (OVER COMM): I know! We’ve got a long ride ahead of us.

    KAYA: Ride, wha – where are we going?

    SHANNON: There’s somethin’ I wanna show ya. Get dressed and come outside.

    The comm clicks off. Kaya sighs and throws off the sheets.

    EXT. – BASE
    Kaya walks out the front door of the base, running a hand over her hair, which is of course immaculate. No matter what the time of day, Kaya never goes anywhere without thorough grooming. It’s still dark outside. Shannon is out on the road, on her horse.

    SHANNON: Howdy, sunshine.

    KAYA: Now, you see – it’s the distinct lack of illumination that has me in a less than pleasant frame of mind.

    SHANNON: Ah – you’re gettin’ at my reason for bein’ here.

    KAYA: Besides depriving me of my hard earned sleep?

    Shannon holds out her hand.

    KAYA: Oh, I – I dunno, Shan.

    SHANNON: Come on. You’ll be glad you came. Trust me.

    Kaya eyes her warily, but takes her hand and lets Shannon help her swing up into the saddle. She wraps her arms around Shannon’s waist and Shannon pulls her hat down low over her eyes as she urges her horse into a trot.

    KAYA: It’s just – couldn’t you have brought a buggy or something?

    Shannon digs in her heels and her horse goes from a trot to a canter, and then a gallop.

    KAYA: You know that I hate horseEEES!

    They gallop down the road and out of the gate.

    In the dusky light, the silhouette of the horse gallops across the expanse of the grasslands towards the mountains. A path starts at the base of the nearest one and they charge up it. As they near the top, Shannon slows the horse until they’re trotting again. There’s a spot where the terrain plateaus into a cliff overlooking the horizon. Shannon stops the horse. Kaya slides down, legs shaking.

    KAYA: Never. Again. Never again!

    Shannon chuckles and jumps down.

    SHANNON: Quit complaining.

    She points off in the distance.

    SHANNON: Look.

    Kaya turns around. A thin orange line has appeared on the horizon. Little by little, the golden ball of the sun rises into the sky. As it does, its light falls softly on the land, illuminating the vastness of the plains stretching into distance.

    KAYA: (under her breath) Mon Dieu.

    SHANNON: What’d ya say?

    KAYA: Nothing, I – I never knew there was so much green in one place.

    SHANNON: That’s what made me think of it. What you were telling me the other day about growing up in the city. I thought ya outta see a real sunrise.

    Kaya smiles and takes Shannon’s hand.

    KAYA: Thank you.

    They turn and watch the sun continue climbing into the sky.

  13. Priyanka Chhadwa

    This article is so Brilliant!
    I think you have just figured out the best way to put out writing that is honest. Often i am stuck in stories because i don’t know what should be the next step in the story, but when you consider the emotions and make decisions accordingly they come to life.

    Another way i have found useful to ‘Write what you know’ is Exaggeration.

    To heighten certain mundane situations by Exaggerating the elements that surround it.

    For example.
    I walk a lot in the night, when the roads are quiet. The sounds are easier to spot and the effect of any sound is more prominent. I try to ask in what state of my mind does my character have to be to be able to hear such vivid sounds. Probably in a state of shock or deep contemplation. Then you can just play with it.

    A more physical example would be if i hear footsteps of somebody walking behind me, i try and exaggerate the situation by processing the speed of his footsteps and imagining what is it he could be rushing for. The last late night kitchen that shut in 10 mins or trying to reach home before his beloved goes to sleep.

  14. EmFairley

    This is great on so many levels, Jeff. Not only does it serve it’s purpose of using our emotions in our writing, but it’s also an important reminder that the piece doesn’t and perhaps shouldn’t be written in the order it will be read. That is my key for tackling the dreaded writer’s block

  15. Stella

    She felt everything dissolving as she opened the envelope.

    It wasn’t even the test results. As though to pad the impact of the truth, they had hidden those behind a stack of brightly-coloured leaflets. One had fallen out when she opened the envelope. Reading it, she knew already what her results would be.

    ‘Top 10 myths about dyslexia – yes, you can go to college and you can get a job!’

    She wasn’t dyslexic. Dyslexic was little kids who got their ‘bs’ and ‘ds’ mixed up. Dyslexic was toddlers who said ‘god’ instead of ‘dog’. Dyslexic was hyperactive, unable to learn, stupid. She wasn’t – she couldn’t be – dyslexic.

    And yet everything was coming together, in a way her essays never had. The headaches after reading for just a few hours. After years of ignoring them she’d gotten up the courage to ask her parents for glasses – and convinced herself she just wasn’t used to them yet when the headaches continued. The teachers’ reports. Kendall is a diligent student who is making a conscientious effort to improve her writing. Kendall has shown good effort in catching up to the reading standard of her peers. The images that came so naturally to her, the pictures in her mind which her friends didn’t seem to have.

    It was just like the images that came to her when she took apart her dad’s old radio or her little brother’s remote-controlled car. That flash of insight where she saw the big picture of how all the little parts fit together. She could see that big picture now. The dots were connecting, and even she knew what they spelt.

    She was dyslexic. She had always been dyslexic. And she would always be dyslexic.

    • EndlessExposition

      This is a great practice! The use of detail to build Kendall’s backstory was especially well done.

    • Stella

      Thank you! I’m not dyslexic myself nor do I know anyone in real life who is, so I read up on dyslexia and spoke to a friend who teaches dyslexic kids to understand it better. This is a key scene in my story though so I’ll continue researching to make sure the details are believable. Thank you for commenting, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    • Emily Faithe

      Oh this is so good! Super well written and emotionally rich. And I agree, you seamlessly wove the past with the present for a very succinct big picture image. I want more!

    • Stella

      Thanks! I was surprised by how this turned out too, it’s a scene in my WIP I’ve been putting off. Appreciate your encouragement and feedback!

    • Kikku


    • Stella


  16. Harper Hodges

    Dear Mr. Elkin,
    Solid advice. This is very helpful, to record feelings from daily events, and then to see how the feeling fit into my characters, and then write the scene now, while the feelings are fresh.
    I pray your son is well. May his adventures give you a wealth of emotions to write from.
    All my best,

  17. RevDr. Robert Foster, AbC, EfG

    This is excellent advice. My take on the “Write what you know,” advice comes from Robert Masello: “Write What You Read” ( Rule 16 .) He breaks it down to that which you have at your bedside, on your bookshelves, what you reach for, is what you should write. You know the flow, the rhythms, the style and the tropes.

    If you read a lot of Tolkien, you’re gonna have a hard time writing Batman.

  18. Jonathan Hutchison

    This article arrived at just the right moment. For 20 years I have been writing sermons, wedding messages, funeral eulogies, Bible Studies and an occasional non-secular article drawing on my vocation as a pastor. (By the way this is my third career: 1) Wall Street Banker, 2) Headmaster at several private schools, and 3) a member of the clergy.)

    Lately, what I have been spending time thinking about has been how to translate the focused writing I have done so as to write articles about a greater diversity of topics that affect me. i.e. emotions and experiences. So when I opened up this article today, it was in a manner of speaking, ” an answer to prayer.” Thank you for the three steps you offered us, steps that will help me broaden my subject material by focusing not on subject material alone (write what I know) but also on emotional content and the end results of my experiences.

    Preparing weekly sermons has given me discipline, focus, purpose. Now by spending my time with “emotion”, perhaps I can expand the limited range of writing I have done lately. Great article. Thanks. I am humbled by the writing of the folks on this site.

  19. Emily Faithe

    Oh this is just brilliant. Love your work, Joe. Can’t wait to read this homeless superhero novel!

  20. Jonathan Hutchison


    We met by chance a few months ago and at that first meeting, for what seemed like a forever moment, we traded small talk about every topic either of us could offer up. The talk turned into glances that turned into dinner that turned into, well you can imagine.
    For a week, this was our habit. We’d awake at either her place or mine, brew coffee, read the paper, pack a picnic and then go exploring. What we explored was based on whatever whim one of us would advocate. Whimsy, joy, pathos, pleasure, budding romance, intimacy, each day was fully flooded with great planned experiences with passion.
    At night after dinner we would spend hours at jazz clubs or art galleries, soaking in the soul searching expressions of emotion the musicians or artists possessed. Later we would decide why we could or could not incorporate those emotions into our lives. You see, what we didn’t feel, we tried to manufacture. We tried to hold onto the temporarily borrowed emotions of musicians and artists to fill up the gaping holes of our incomplete personalities.
    The first week turned in to a second week and then a third. One morning I woke up a bit later than usual and found I was alone. I found a note, a note I really hadn’t expected. She had left. She asked that I leave the apartment by noon that day so that she could come and gather up the accessories of her presence in my apartment. She would prefer that we not talk or see each other that day or in fact, ever again.
    I have no idea what happened. We didn’t fight; we actually had stayed up late that night planning for the upcoming weekend. We were going to get together with mutual friends for a wine tasting in the valley. Everything seemed fine including the way we shared what was, in hindsight, a final night of intimacy.
    I left her no note and I cleared out just as she had asked. Noon came and went. I assume she came and went. Noon became night and coffee at Starbucks became vodka martinis at my favorite retreat. It was going to be a very long night.
    Just then, in she came with our friends, the friends that would have gone wine tasting with us this coming weekend. The fourth person that sat down with them was an artist we had talked with the night before at the 4th Street Gallery. He obviously took my place as fast as she allowed him. I had been forgotten. As I ordered another drink, the woman concocting my martini, leaned across the bar and said, “Here you are Rob. Enjoy.” She hadn’t forgotten me. She even knew my name.

    Thanks for this exercise. I would like to expand this piece so I would appreciate any feedback you all might have.

    • LilianGardner

      I love this piece of writing, Joe. It’s as though you are sitting with me, telling me what happened. Unfortunately, many stories end this way, with one of the two ending the relationship suddenly.
      Could I suggest an insert, (while the couple are living together), maybe a brief dialogue, just to show the quality and depth of their relationship. Some hint of her fickleness.
      Looking forward to reading more. Thanks for sharing.

      Happy writing,

    • Jonathan Hutchison

      Thank you very much for the feedback. I intentionally left out any dialogue or names to suggest the impersonality and the shallowness of the relationship. But I will try out what you suggest and see where it goes. Thanks.

    • LilianGardner

      Joe, I hope you improve your post with my suggestion. Just to make the story not one-sided and to have a glimpse of the antagonist.

    • Kikku

      I liked your work very much. Though I agree with LilianGardner that may be it would have been good if some hints about her fickleness were incorporated earlier. It seems as though it ended abruptly.

      Best wishes & happy writing.

    • Jonathan Hutchison

      Thanks so much. I will consider expanding the internal structure to incorporate your thoughts. I can’t decide if she was just fickle or cruel.

  21. Kikku


    I was engrossed with the contents of the file in my hand, which contained boring stuffs like balance sheets, debit, credit etc. But who I am to complain. When you are an extremely successful businessman, this is what you do even in your free time. Again,I don’t get many free times these days.

    Suddenly a splash of water on the glass window of my car snapped me out of of my thoughts.

    At first what I felt, was the most common emotion in me those days, annoyance. I was extremely irritated and uttered a curse under my breath. But when I looked out of the window, I was greeted by a scene which rendered me speechless.

    My car was stuck at a traffic signal and on the roadside a few children were playing on a puddle of water.They were drenching in the rain. Their school uniform became muddied, for which, I am sure they would get a good scolding from their mothers.

    My lips upturned into a faint smile as I remembered the countless events when me and Ryan, my brother and my accomplice in all those carefree, unruly endeavors, faced our frantic mother’s wrath.
    I do not blame my mother for being frustrated on us, we were little terrors wracking havoc where-ever we went.

    The upturned faces of those children, the look of utter happiness as the raindrops touched their already drenched face – pulled some strings in my heart. I felt a dull ache there.

    When was the last time I was carefree?

    When was the last time I did something out of the routine?

    When was the last time I had a good laugh, some good moments spent with my family- me, mom, dad and Ryan? ………

    When was the last time I felt sheer happiness like those children?

    I could not remember the feelings of raindrops on my upturned face, the simple joy a rainy day can bring, the light feeling when I can talk about anything and everything with some dear ones without getting worried.

    It felt as if I was hit by a ton of bricks as I realized the emptiness of my life.
    The amount of money, fame and power I earned was envied by many and even I thought I was ‘happy’ with the result.

    But these were actually bought at the cost my happiness, the peace of my mind.

    I don’t know how, but suddenly I found myself out of my car!
    The sharp raindrops hitting on my skin made me aware.
    Cold wind was playing with my hair, making an unruly mess of what was previously perfectly back-brushed, suitable for a business meeting.

    The voice of my startled driver was coming as if from a faraway corner of my consciousness.
    The poor man! he had never seen his master doing this kind of ridicules and time wasting thing in his eight years of service.

    And when I stepped into the puddle with those children, I’m sure my driver was gaping at me, mouth wide open. I didn’t care to see though. My mind was in a haze.

    I was not actually mentally present at that space-time. My mind raced towards some faraway land in forgotten times, when I had not become the cold, bitter businessman yet.

    The children at first were a bit shocked or afraid, but as I shed off my outer jacket to feel the raindrops more closely, they started to jump up and down around me.

    I know that I made quite a scene that day.

    A grown man in expensive business attire jumping on a roadside puddle with a bunch of children, drenching in rain and smiling like a lunatic!

    Again, I don’t care.

    Because at that moment I felt liberated,free.

    It was the realization of that day, which made me call my family that night, making up for the lost time.
    It was the realization of the day that liberated my soul somehow from the dry calculations of debit, credit. loss and profit. It made me realize what the balance sheet of ‘Life’ should be!

    I didn’t care about a soul at that moment.

    Because I knew my face was glowing in utter happiness too, just like those children, when the rain drops were touching my upturned face.

  22. 709writer

    Julia stared as the gunshot’s echo faded away. Shadow stood motionless for a few moments. Then he was falling – into the grassy earth, without a sound.

    A scream tore from her lungs. “No!”

    She scrambled to his side, his shooter forgotten, and turned her friend over on his back. Blood spurted from a hole in his abdomen. She interlocked her fingers and shoved down on the opening, even as tears welled in her eyes. Red leaked through her fingers. Blood pumped against the palms of her hands.

    Shadow’s eyes shifted from side to side. His breathing was erratic, each breath like the wind passing through holes in a glass window.

    “Run.” The word was low and rough.

    Julia pushed harder on his wound, but the blood would not stop. Tears blurred her vision. She hiccuped on a sob. An ache swelled in her chest, spreading to her throat and constricting her lungs.

    “Shh.” Trembling took hold of her body. She leaned forward, putting all her weight over her hands. “You’ll be all right. Everything’s going to be all right.”

    Sobs shook her shoulders. She wanted to call for help. But if she removed her hands from Shadow’s wound to dial 9-1-1, he would bleed to death.

    So she squeezed her eyes shut, and with all her strength, she drove her palms into the bullet hole.

    Great article! This is a good way to start writing when you can’t think of anything to write – just pick an emotion that you feel and try it out with your character. Any feedback/comments welcome. Thanks!

  23. ebooks2go

    Hey Elkins! An astonishing advice that depends on the emotion of real life is great and exceptional, the guidance could be most useful for the new writers who are getting ready to write their new books. Thanks for sharing.



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