When you were raised in a remote town in Europe, there really isn't much that you've experienced.

I'm 21 and I often struggle with writing because I just do not know how 'these things' work. I can't write about a character going on a cruise, or about a bankteller, or about a broken bike. Sometimes your story takes you to unexpected places, and suddenly you find yourself having to know how the divorce process works if you want to give your story any air of realism (even if it's just one short sentence).

When you don't know what you're talking about, the reader can become very well aware of it, especially when they have more experience in a subject than you do.

Of course, I could always research about it, but to me it sometimes feels dishonest and unauthentic. Nothing beats your own experiences when it comes to putting down thoughts into words. Is this a common struggle for young writers? Or am I just building mental barriers?

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    am I just building mental barriers?. Yes, you are. Pick up any book of fantasy or sci-fi, they all contain much that the author had no possibility of experiencing. But they all contain a core of "truth" about the characters and their emotions and desires and behaviours - all topics of which you have considerable experience by the age of 21. Sep 21, 2022 at 9:12

3 Answers 3


Research, or detailed imagination (not so easy), is part of writing.

You might try writing, indirectly, about yourself: That is "what you know". So invent a character, in your town, very much like you, maybe you at 15, or 10, or at 21, knowing what you know, with experiences like yours.

JK Rowling wrote about a boy, just like her boys, Harry Potter knew what they knew. She gave Harry different parents, but Harry knew absolutely nothing about magic, muggles, whatever. Neither did Rowling!

But British kids could identify with Harry, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasely. Absolutely everything else about magic, and Hogwarts, Rowling imagined out of nothing. It is all original, except for a few basics of magic (wands, wizard clothing, etc). Nobody on the planet had any experience with Hogwarts, or Quiditch, or a Sorting Hat.

How did Rowling "write what she knew"? She knew her boys, and kids.

I wrote a fantasy story in which a character gets a job making linen. I spent three hours online learning the basics of how to make linen from flax, so my character could become employed on one of those steps (breaking the flax to separate fibers).

Elsewhere I had to know exactly how a sling worked; I looked it up, and saw videos. How fast could an expert load a stone and throw? What size of stone? What could it bring it down? (Quite a lot, a sling-thrown stone can have more impact power than a 45 caliber bullet.)

Even if you just learned it, you are writing what you know. If you need a 38 year old to have a heart attack, look up heart disease. You don't need to know every detail of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, just a few symptoms, it is genetic, there is a small but realistic chance it can kill someone quite young, even if they have no other risk factors (like smoking).

Write a hero that knows about what you know, and has to learn as they go (like Harry Potter).

As for research seeming non-authentic, don't copy it so closely. You're only trying to not say something too obviously wrong, so you need to distill your research into the general shape of the topic that you can understand.

A divorce attorney will certainly know more about the topic than you ever will. But your goal is not expertise, you aren't writing a textbook. You are writing about the emotions and thinking of characters like you; you just want to make sure that when a divorce attorney reads your story, you don't say something so obviously untrue that reader drops out of their reading immersion.

The writers of Sherlock Holmes never committed or investigated murders. The writers of Mission Impossible were not secret government agents.

You are taking "write what you know" too literally. You don't have to be a doctor, a lawyer, a spy, a secret agent undercover, an astronaut, a child raised on the first moon colony, or a fish searching for his son Nemo.

What those writers "know" is how people feel. And what people read for is to experience, emotionally, the lives of others in unusual, fantastical situations. Characters solving problems with the assets and deficits of strength and knowledge that they (readers) can relate to.

You've lived 21 years in a remote European town. Approximately 0% of readers have done that, you know more about that than anybody. How it works, what is expected, what is taken for granted, is all second nature to you. And readers could be interested in that, because it is beyond their own life experiences. Write about a 15 year old growing up in a remote European town that has:

A) A real talent, something you have seen but exaggerate it,

B) A real deficit, something you have seen but exaggerate it, something that will cause them grief or have them make mistakes,

C) A problem that they have to solve, or it will ruin their life. One that will force them out of their small town.

Look up what you need, but be shallow. Stop your research once you know enough to just not be egregiously or laughably wrong. You don't have to be an expert. And what you learn is not to recite verbatim, it is what a person growing up in a remote European town would have to learn to get by on that question.

His parents fight and inform him they are getting a divorce. You just need to write what they tell him about what that means, not the scene where they sit with a divorce attorney discussing the details of their divorce. Make sure that doesn't matter to the story or plot, it's a vanilla divorce.

If you need it to matter, do enough research on Google to be plausibly accurate, not perfectly accurate.


Is this a common struggle for young writers? Or am I just building mental barriers?

I would say yes to both of these questions. Yes, it's common for young writers to grapple with lack of experience, and you are also fixating too much on this problem. The main issue here is you're taking "write what you know" too literally. If all anybody did was write only the things the knew, fiction would not exist.

What people mean when they say "write what you know" is to bring any personal experiences you have into your writing, wherever applicable, because it's an excellent way to avoid falling back on cliches for describing things. If you don't have personal experiences, you have to supplement with other forms of knowledge. In your case, I'd suggest reading more books.

Reading in general is about exploring outside your own experience, and fiction in particular is about exploring possibilities that are imaginary, impossible, fantastical, or speculative. At some point you must depart from the familiar and engage with something outside yourself, or else your relationship with reading and writing will be brief and unrewarding.

So my advice to get over this hurdle is to read more. It's common, general advice to anybody trying to improve their writing: just read more. Read the kind of stories you wish you could write, about the kinds of characters you want to create, living the kind of lives you find interesting. Don't limit yourself to fiction, read nonfiction too. Do research into topics you want to write about. Knowledge gained from reading is also "what you know".


You know more than you think:

So if you've grown up in the country, you might know country living. Do you know how to hunt? Write about hunting. Do you know about farming? A story on a farm can be almost anywhere. Do you hate small-town clique behavior? Use that. but make the cliques somewhere else. Do you long to leave your town? Write about wanting to leave. Do you know local history? Write fiction about the past in your area. Are there any famous people who came from your area? Fictionalize something about a similar character.

You know enough to make stuff up.

Take subjects that you do know and apply the similar details to a new setting. Life in a small town is not that different from being a member of a tight community in a city. Maybe a war was fought in the region at some point? Apply what happened to your area to a fictional area and a fictional conflict. You imagine what would happen if aliens landed in your rural town and met your Grandparents? Change the names to protect the innocent (and avoid getting sued). And a remote small town in Europe sounds like the perfect setting for a Gothic castle and/or a monster hidden by the town elders that eats one young writer every year...

Research lets you take the things you know and place them elsewhere:

Don't make up stuff from research, but use it as a tool to apply to different situations. So write about a rural town in another country, adding unique details to support the local color. Use it to make sure stuff you say isn't a lie. But 95% of what people do is universal to people everywhere. Everyone has a slutty cousin who gets in trouble, or an obnoxious sibling who bosses them around, or a father they will never please, or that aunt who insists they visit. People care a lot more about the characters and how their unique situations play out in a greater story. The secret of Stephen King's stories isn't the subject matter, but how he has real people dealing with vampires, werewolves, repressive governments, or the end of the world as we know it.

First stories frequently suck:

My first story was about a vampire stuck in my small home town after a nuclear apocalypse. Neat idea, but it SUCKED hard. I didn't know how to make characters seem real, or add detail so it was internally consistent. But I could write what I know and practice.

So your stories might be great, or they might suck. The good news is, you are always writing your practice stuff when you know the least and your reading audience (family and close friends) will lie to you and tell you you're great. Mom isn't a reliable beta reader, but there might not have been a second story without unconditional encouragement.

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