Guest Post: Write What You “No” – by Paul Douglas

Today’s post comes from Paul Douglas of Words & Pictures.  In the post below he takes the common writing phrase – Write What You Know – and gives it a good thrashing. Enjoy!


No, that’s not a typo. All my life (OK, maybe not all, but a good percentage of my life) I have heard that a writer should write what they know. Well, think about that for a moment. If we all subscribed to that line of thinking there would be no Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea or Frankenstein (or Dracula) or even Harry Potter. One of my favorite writers, Raymond Chandler, was born in Chicago IL but was raised and schooled in England. At age forty-four, Raymond Chandler decided to become a detective fiction writer after losing his job as an oil company executive during the Depression. His first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. And thus was born Philip Marlowe. Alongside Sam Spade, the character of Philip Marlowe is foremost within the genre of hardboiled detective fiction! What did Raymond Chandler know about hard drinking, tough talking detectives? Probably as much as I do. Did he let that stop him? What do you think?

“The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it.” ~~ Benjamin Disraeli

I know very little about Disraeli save that he was a British Prime Minister in, I believe, the late 1800’s. That has absolutely nothing to do with what I- or he- is saying here. This quote is a direct corollary to what I stated above. Why write only what you know about? That can be so confining. Let your imagination run wild. Isn’t that what writing is all about? Whatever you need to know you can research, especially nowadays where anything can be found in the matter of a few minutes on the internet. The novel I am currently working on is (of course) a detective novel. Do I know anything about detecting? What do you think? Do I let that stop me? What do you think?

“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” ~~ Robert A. Heinlein

Don’t let anything or anybody deter you from writing if that’s what you want to do. I remember writing my first novel by longhand. When it came time to get it into shape I asked someone (who will go unnamed) to type it for me. When they completed it, they handed it to me amidst gales of laughter. That was their critique of my writing. Did I let that stop me? What do you think? (P. S. the unnamed person was my own mother!)

“Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.” ~~ Thomas Berger

Well I don’t agree at all with this quote. Sorry, Tom. It is there. Every single word, every single plot, every single theme. I’ve heard that every story that will ever be told, has already been told. All we can now do is to vary it in the retelling. How about the Holocaust? Done to death? Then try reading The Book Thief by Australian author Marcus Zusak (and what does an Australian- not an Austrian, but an Australian- know about the Holocaust? This man was born in 1975. What does he know about an event that took place 30 some odd years before he was born?) The narrator of this book is Death himself: a benign and sympathetic Death, who has a tendency to define moments by their color. Try it, After the first few pages you will not be able to put it down.

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” ~~ Thomas Mann

Besides childbirth, writing is the single, most difficult activity I have ever experienced. Well, OK, I haven’t actually experienced childbirth. But I was there when my first son was born. (Well, come to think of it, neither my wife nor I were there when our first child was born as he was adopted. And when our second child was born they wouldn’t let me in the room, but that’s another story.) But I can imagine how painful giving birth can be. And I know how painful writing is. So why would anyone want to be a writer? Why does anyone want to be a mother? Maybe it has something to do with leaving something behind, a part of yourself. In a way, we achieve immortality by having a child, writing a book. So maybe that’s the answer.

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying.” ~~ Woody Allen.

Yes, well, I have it on pretty good authority that we’re all going to die sooner or later so you’d better have plan ‘B’ ready for that eventuality. Immortality is not really why I write, though. I don’t really think it’s why any of us write. We do it because we can’t help it.

“We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.” ~~ W. Somerset Maugham

See you next week. Thanks Paul!

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Write What You “No” – by Paul Douglas

  1. That’s definitely important to remember — that there’s no reason we should expect ourselves to have lived all of the experiences of the characters we write about. If we personally need to have had every experience the characters in our stories go through, their personal histories would probably start to get repetitive, I imagine.

  2. Glad you’re back, Bob. Hope you had a good time. Chris, I think that was all I was trying to say. You were much more succinct. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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