On Writing What You Know

A visit with mom gives rise to thoughts about… a visit from mom

In my early years writing screenplays or taking writing classes and workshops, the advice-mantra “write what you know” was repeated over and over again. But when you’re writing a story about something that happened 200 years ago, or about what happens after death, or during a natural disaster, or in outer space, light years away from Earth, how can you know?

Clearly, “write what you know” isn’t to be taken literally.  For example, I have no idea what it is like to be a woman, or African-American, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write female or black characters. The reader can decide (if they even care) whether I did a good job of portraying the inner thoughts of someone who is clearly not me.  And these days all writers, and especially white males, face increased scrutiny, and with good reason.  Are our female characters real?  Do they act and think like real women?  Do they need to?  They’re not real people anyway, we make them up out of thin air.  Does my black guy talk like a real black guy or does he talk like a white guy thinks a black guy talks, which means what exactly?

And “my African American” as the President might call him.  I know, I just realized it.  Well, maybe not just.  Only one main character in my book is black and he might exist only in the minds of the other characters. So if they make a movie from the novel, there will only be one part for an African-American actor. Is that unintentionally racist?  I guess that character could be a woman.  Is that unintentionally sexist?

Or my Muslim guy.  He’s very intelligent and compassionate and tolerant. And why shouldn’t he be?  He’s from Sudan.  He’s a multi-millionaire, married to a Jewish woman 20 years older than he is. So am I allowed to write him?  I don’t know anyone from the Sudan.  This is not what I know. He’s been appropriated.  My Muslim likes Jewish people.  Is that okay, since I’m Jewish?  Or is that not real?  It’s not what I know, it’s what I made up.

I don’t know how women think.  It’s always been a mystery to me. And to most men. They write books about it.  Oh, sure, on some 90% of topics men and women can think alike, but it’s that other 10% that baffles and causes all sorts of yelling and plate throwing.  Does this mean I can’t write women?

Of course not.  I think.

My book has a lot of stuff in it that seems quite intimate and some might wonder if it’s autobiographical. Not even a little, actually. Sure, there are characteristics of friends and family and foes that I used to assemble the characters’ particular personality traits and histories in Smoking In Bed.  But none of the characters are people I know.  And there is exactly one chapter in the book that is taken from a real life event that happened to me.  Okay, maybe two. But that’s it, I swear. The rest is made up.  Hell, I put Dick Cheney in there.  I don’t know Dick.

One of the recurring themes is the protagonist Phil’s relationship with his parents.  Okay, so my name is Paul and he’s Phil.  He’s still not me.  My real-life, actual mom visited with us last week and it occurred to me that Phil’s mother and my mother have exactly NOTHING in common.  Not one thing.  Same with Phil’s dad, who was nothing like mine, except he was a Mets fan and liked fishing (as my father did). I used absolutely nothing of my own parents to create Phil’s parents, although upon further reflection, I did use my feelings about my relationship with my parents, so I know that… I know that.

But what about “write what you know?”  Well, I might not know how a young Muslim multi-millionaire’s parents would react to him marrying an older Jewish woman.  But I can guess how my grandparents would react to my mother marrying a religious Arab Muslim.  And it might be a bit embarrassing or even infuriating.  And it also might be funny, depending on what happens next.

It’s like what happens when an actor is confronted with portraying a character in a situation that has no relationship to his or her experience, or even reality.  Like in science fiction.  “Okay, act like you’re afraid of being eaten by this Florm.  It’s about 17 feet tall, scaly, and smells like shrimp.” They can use memories and feelings from their life and just plug those feelings into the situation.

Writers are actors in our own mind.  Really.  I try to figure out what each of my characters are thinking and feeling in any given situation.  Even Dick Cheney.  I mean, what the hell do I know about being Dick Cheney?  Nothing.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it extensively.  I know, that’s a strange way to spend one’s time, but that’s one thing that makes me, me.

In conclusion, always write what you know, and if you want to write about something that you don’t know, just act like you know, or think like you know, and write it anyway and with any luck it will all turn out for the best!

Please join me for a reading and signing of my novel Smoking In Bed at Book Soup in West Hollywood. Info:


Smoking In Bed is available on Kindle and in paperback at Amazon.com.

Smoking In Bed (paperback)

Smoking In Bed (Kindle)

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