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Writing What You "Know" by author Chris Howard

January 1, 2013 - 7:36am -- angela
Chris Howard
Chris Howard

You've heard this piece of advice, right?

"Write what you know!"

People often think this means a writer should keep their story stuck inside their own world of experiences, which is a fine idea if you've lived as large as Ernest Hemingway did. But let's face it, most of us haven't been ambulance drivers in a world war nor lion hunters on African safari. And if you keep your stories stuck inside a world you're too familiar with, surrounded by characters who are just like people you know, than you're creating little more than a thinly-veiled autobiography, and for most of us that's not what we want at all! We want to create wild stories set in freshly-imagined worlds, full of characters we "made up" rather than "remembered." That's where the fun begins for the writer, and the reader… being exposed to something new, traveling to new places, meeting new people and learning new things. So, what about this whole "write what you know" thing? What does it mean? How can you use it to improve your writing? I think it comes down to knowing something in your heart, rather than in your memories. You should know the feelings you're trying to convey and why you're writing the story in the first place. And as you make up all these wonderful things from scratch, I recommend taking some time getting to know them.


Here's my original character sketch for Banyan, the main character of my debut novel ROOTLESS. I wrote this before writing even the first chapter of the book, and had little idea where the story was going to go. But I had a character I wanted to get to know…

Age: Late teens

Occupation: Tree Builder - creates scrap-metal forests for rich clients who still crave nature in a world where there is none. His trees are beautiful - incredible works of art - wind-chime branches, velvet leaves and flickering LED lights…

Vehicle: An old station wagon - full of tools, scrap, boxes of popcorn (only engineered corn can grow).

Clothing: Tool belt, goggles, bandana for dust… rags. Nail gun (could be used as weapon). Old sombrero (father's?)

Physical Appearance: Ragged. Skinny. Trickster. Grin.

Diet: Microwave popcorn. (flavor??)

What makes him special: Tree building skills…he's "the best" / Desire to do more than just survive. Freedom/ Nomad. Kind. Respects people. Respects women. Craves beauty. Longs for nature. Noble savage. Artist.

What does he want at the beginning of story: To find his missing father (who was also a tree builder)

What does he want at THE TURN: To find the REAL TREES (promised land)… and find his father. Can he find both? Does finding one mean losing the other??

What would he never do: Destroy a living tree. Hurt an innocent person.  

A lot from this original sketch made it into the finished book. But this is a "sketch," and I had to get to know the character better before I could begin writing his story. For me, this means lots of long walks and thinking, it means getting inside his/her head and figuring out what makes the character tick. And, ultimately, it means diving into the first draft, prepared for the characters to surprise me, because I don't really know them until the end of that first draft. Character sketches can be super useful, and they can help you begin to visualize every character in your story, but I encourage you to get to know all your characters as deeply as you can during the writing process.

Another example: WORLD-BUILDING

When writing ROOTLESS, I wanted to create a world different from anything readers had experienced before. As the story began to take shape, I pictured Rastafarian warriors and punk rock pirates… mutated cornfields and flesh-eating locusts… corporate agents all dressed in purple… and a young tree builder creating scrap-metal forests on the dusty plains. I always knew it would be Banyan, the tree builder, who'd guide readers on a journey through this world—a world where the oceans have been churned into the impassable Surge, and where genetically engineered corn is the only remaining source of food and fuel. Though Banyan makes plenty of discoveries in the book, I wanted the reader to only ever know what Banyan knows, so I held back on extra details and backstory that weren't relevant to his story. Still, it was important for me to create histories for the Salvage Guild and the bootleggers, the pirates and poachers, the GenTech agents and the Rasta armies… a lot of these histories weren't necessary to the reader so they didn't make it into the book, but I needed to know them. Maybe not during the first draft, but as I edited the book, I needed to know how the Soljahs claimed Niagara as their kingdom, I needed to know the secrets of the Salvage Guild. Especially as this was the first book in a series, I had to know the world, so I could start to bring it to life.

Final example: PURPOSE

I've never been a tree builder. I don't live in a post-apocalyptic world where no nature survives. But at its heart, Banyan's story is about someone searching for love and connection… the wild places and the wild people and wild things… justice, and freedom from oppression. Banyan’s art and his quest are not just about trees and nature—he wants to give people hope and build people up, and that’s something I want to do through my writing. So, I know this story, these themes and feelings, hopes and fears. I'm writing what I know in the sense that I'm writing "what I care about." I think a writer should be inspired by things they're passionate about, the things they hold sacred or the things they despise. Because if "write what you know" is all about authenticity, then you're story will be as authentic as they come.

To wrap things up, I actually don't plan or outline too much during my first draft. I don't need to know everything that's going to happen. Instead, I trust that I know enough about my characters and the world I've created, and that on some level, I know why I'm telling this particular story… so, I might not know where I'm going to get, but I know why I'm trying to get there!


About the Book

17-year-old Banyan is a tree builder. Using salvaged scrap metal, he creates forests for rich patrons who seek a reprieve from the desolate landscape. Although Banyan's never seen a real tree—they were destroyed more than a century ago—his missing father used to tell him stories about the Old World.

Everything changes when Banyan meets a mysterious woman with a strange tattoo, a map to the last living trees on earth, and he sets off across a wasteland from which few return. Those who make it past the pirates and poachers can't escape the locusts... the locusts that now feed on human flesh.

But Banyan isn't the only one looking for the trees, and he's running out of time. Unsure of whom to trust, he's forced to make an alliance with Alpha, an alluring, dangerous pirate with an agenda of her own. As they race towards a promised land that might only be a myth, Banyan makes shocking discoveries about his family, his past, and how far people will go to bring back the trees.

Check out Rootless from the Library


About Chris

Before he wrote stories, Chris Howard wrote songs, studied natural resources management, and led wilderness adventure trips for teenagers. He currently lives in Denver, CO, and ROOTLESS is his first novel. Join him at www.chrishowardbooks.com








FULL PRESS KIT: www.flickr.com/photos/chrishowardbooks/7933676952/in/photostream



Submitted by Daxo on
Great points. If the character doesn't ring true who cares what happens to him/her?

Submitted by Shelby on
Ah, thanks for this! I've written several novels and writing advice from others still seems distracting. "Write what you know" is often overused, but I love how you connected the deeper conflicts in a story with universal ideas. Another bit of advice that annoys me is "show, don't tell." Any chance you could write about that? :)

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