• Wendy Wanner

How do you decide what to write about?

For some fiction writers, subject matter comes easily, but if you’re struggling for ideas, where can you turn? Do you have a concept in mind, but feel you don’t know enough to be qualified to write about it? Or worse yet, do you feel restricted to writing about what you know?


Here are some ideas for spotlighting what you know in your writing, and learning about those you don’t.


Is “writing what you know” good advice?


Readers can feel the passion behind your words, or the lack thereof, so it’s much more important that you write about something you’re interested in, than something about which you are an expert. In fact, following the old rule “write what you know” could actually restrict your writing by limiting it to subjects about which you already have in-depth knowledge.


When is too much knowledge a bad thing?


Deep familiarity with a subject will help you write with conviction, but sometimes this can lead to the problem of forcing too much detail on the reader.


Let’s take the example of your tax accountant. After he spends twenty minutes explaining about which returns he has filed for you, itemized deductions, statement summaries, individual financial plans to minimize tax liability at the federal, state and local level, and all the rest, chances are you’d say, “Just tell me how much I have to pay.”


If you write as an expert, details which are very important to you can overload your reader. The advice here is the same for everything in your book: Does that bit of information further the plot and develop the characters or relationships, or is it too much distraction? If it’s not critical to the story and doesn’t set the scene, you should consider taking it out. This will reduce word count and cleanse your writing, making it easier for readers to identify what is crucial to the story, rather than what is important to the author.


Dust off that university degree


At some point, you were interested enough in a subject to make it your major in college. Maybe you are still using that degree many years later, or maybe your career has careened in a completely different direction, leaving it to gather dust on a shelf. Either way, that knowledge and interest is still with you. Here are two ways to use this in your creative writing:


Have your main character do the job.

Regardless of what your book is about, you can bring a bit of detailed realism by giving the protagonist a career related to your major. Whether it’s math, physics or geology, could a character based in this career give your story a nice twist?


Build a theme around your field

Consider using your area of interest as a theme in your works. I, personally, have taken this approach with my fiction novels and it creates a nice tight thread that ties them all together.

While the Cultural Anthropology side of my degree has gone by the wayside professionally, my interest in cultures and societies has encouraged me to travel extensively. These vast experiences underlie my writing, enabling me to interweave folklore, cultural idiosyncrasies and that little touch of the paranormal into my supernatural suspense novels.


Consider bringing your old interests to life in the pages of your next novel. If it’s something you’re passionate about, your readers probably will be too.


How to write about something you don’t know


All of the above advice is fine, but what if you want to write about something you know absolutely nothing about? There are a couple of ways to do this.


The first and most obvious is plain and simple research. Google it. Read notice boards and posts on the subject. I find that looking at pictures sometimes helps as well, because then I can recreate the images in the pages of my work.


Admittedly, this process can be long and boring, and you risk the information in your book coming across the same way. Lifeless.


Taking the road to discovery


One way of learning about a subject in such a way that you can write about it vividly is taking the same path of discovery as your character. I have found this to be invaluable. When I had envisioned my character going to Sri Lanka and converting to Buddhism, I took the same path of discovery and traveled there, stayed in a place similar to where she would have stayed, and learned about Buddhism and the local folklore attached to it not by on-line research, but by asking the monks and villagers to teach me.


Luckily, self-study doesn’t have to involve long-distance travel and extended trips, as it can also be done in the every-day environment. In the example above, I could also have tapped into the local Sri Lankan community, found a Buddhist temple to mosey around, and read TripAdvisor comments of Ayurveda retreats. This gets you pretty close on a zero budget.


Whatever you decide to write about, pick a topic that interests you. Not only will you enjoy the creative process, but your readers will love your final work.


Happy Writing!

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