March 24, 2015

Should We Only “Write What We Know”? — Guest: S.P. Sipal

Fingerprint "who am I?" graphic with text: Write What We Know? Or What We Don't?

One truism in writing that’s often repeated is “write what you know.” The idea behind the advice is that our writing will be easier, more authentic, more knowledgeable, etc. if we’re intimately familiar with what we’re talking about.

And that’s a good point. But from another point of view, the advice can be downright harmful—at least for fiction writing.

That advice can make students or young writers freeze when writing fiction. They might look at their life, with their limited experiences, and assume they must not have anything to say.

Writers who have lived their whole lives in rural areas might not think themselves qualified to write stories set in cities (or vice versa). Writers might not want to tackle historical or futuristic stories. Writers might not write outside their racial, gender, nationality, sexuality, ability, religious, social class, etc. background, which would greatly limit diversity in stories.

In short, that advice can be taken to an extreme and severely limit the role of creativity, imagination, and research. We’ve discussed before the role research plays in writing about settings we’re not familiar with or characters different from ourselves, so there’s no reason to avoid writing about things we don’t know—yet. *smile*

That’s why I much prefer the advice:

Write what you want to learn about…

Today, my friend Susan Sipal (writing as S.P. Sipal) is here to share a story about being open to learning new things for our writing. I loved this story because her experience demonstrates how that openness can not only enrich our lives, but can also be fun.

She embodies the spirit of “writing what you want to learn about,” so please welcome S.P. Sipal! *smile*


The Journey of Discovery Through Writing

As authors, the stories we write are often crafted to take our reader on a journey. Perhaps we send our hero, and thus our reader, on an inward voyage of personal renewal or growth. Or, our heroine’s conflict may propel her on an outward trip of mythic adventure.

Either way, one of the best parts about writing, for me, is taking this journey along with my characters. I always learn and discover new things about my world and what I believe through the challenge of writing.

“Sometimes I know what I believe because of what I’ve written.”

— J.K. Rowling

Spiritual exploration has always fascinated me, and thus I probe at it in almost every story I write. I was a Religious Studies major in college and then did a semester at Duke Divinity School before going to work for Habitat for Humanity. Since school, I’ve delved deeply into ancient spiritual concepts, especially those involving the goddess. So, I know quite a bit about a wide variety of religious beliefs.

When it came to writing Southern Fried Wiccan, however, I faced new territory to explore. Which I loved. While I’d read several books on witchcraft, especially green and solitary magick, and performed a few rituals myself, I’d not yet met any practicing Wiccans. If I wanted my story to be authentic, I had to probe deeper.

I live in a small town. As in really small. As in, don’t go out to the PO or grocery store if you’re having a bad hair day…or bad clothes day…as you will always run into someone you know…who wants to talk. You would think that in a small, Southern town, it would be impossible to find any practicing Wiccans.

But I was wrong. I not only found Wiccans, I unearthed a coven.

Attending my first coven meeting was a bit nerve-wracking for me. First, I’m an introvert, so going anywhere new is always a challenge. Second, even though I’d read loads of books written by Wiccans, I still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I guess I felt as if I might enter a situation that would make me uncomfortable. And while I wasn’t exactly worried, I was nervous.

But as I drove down the gravely road through the woods, much like the road I live on, I assured myself that Witch Ellie had sounded perfectly lovely through the emails we exchanged. Then, as I parked in the field in front of her house where the coven was being held, and noted the chickens scurrying to the henhouse to roost just like at home and a cat sitting on an overturned garden bucket grooming, just like my cats, I breathed even easier.

When I rapped on the screen door, I was greeted with a chorus of “come on in, door’s open.” I stepped into a rustic and comfortable (just like at home) living room opening into a kitchen with about eight women sitting around a plank-wood table working some sort of craft. They all smiled and welcomed me in. And like anywhere else I went in town, I even knew a couple of the ladies…one even helped out with the soup kitchen at my church.

Aside from the discussion of the Wheel of the Year and the Goddess as Crone, this small, rural coven was like any other women’s circle I’d attended through bookclubs, at Mary Kay parties, even church. It was potluck, of course.

The food reflected a variety of cultures of the ladies present, and the tea was served in Mason jars. The craft was a Samhain decoration for home altars. We talked and told stories and laughed. And the evening ended with personal sharing and singing outside by a bonfire under a glistening night sky as we released our magical energy into the world. I won’t say that there was not a moment of discomfort for me that evening, but discomfort is often a door opening to growth.

My visit with the coven, and the numerous conversations I had with other Wiccans following, greatly informed not only my story but me as a person. I wanted to make sure that Southern Fried Wiccan portrayed an honest reflection of Wiccan beliefs, while still giving my character Mother Faith and the coven she leads its own particular tone based on her unique outlook.

As authors, opening ourselves up fully to where our stories take us, to me, is the mark of writing authentically. If we write only of what we already fully know, how can we bring the joy of discovery fresh to the page? So long as we remember to approach the unknown with a sense of respect and a desire to expand the boundaries of our minds.

When I choose my next story, it will always be with an eye as to what I don’t know and what journey I wish to explore now.


Susan SipalBorn and raised in North Carolina, Susan Sipal had to travel halfway across the world and return home to embrace her father and grandfather’s penchant for telling a tall tale. After having lived with her husband in his homeland of Turkey for many years, she suddenly saw the world with new eyes and had to write about it.

Perhaps it was the emptiness of the Library of Celsus at Ephesus that cried out to be refilled, or the myths surrounding the ancient Temple of Artemis, but she’s been writing stories filled with myth and mystery ever since. She can’t wait to share Southern Fried Wiccan with readers.


Southern Fried Wiccan coverAbout Southern Fried Wiccan:

Cilla Swaney is thrilled to return stateside, where she can hang up her military-brat boots for good. Finally, she’ll be free to explore her own interests—magick and Wicca. But when she arrives at her grandma’s farm, Cilla discovers that life in the South isn’t quite what she expected. At least while country hopping, she never had to drink G-ma’s crazy fermented concoctions, attend church youth group, make co-op deliveries…or share her locker with a snake-loving, fire-lighting, grimoire-stealing Goth girl…

…Who later invites her to a coven that Cilla’s not sure she has the guts to attend. But then Emilio, the dark-haired hottie from her charter school, shows up and awakens her inner goddess. Finally, Cilla starts believing in her ability to conjure magick. Until…

…All Hades breaks loose. A prank goes wrong during their high school production of Macbeth, and although it seems Emilio is to blame, Cilla and Goth may pay the price. Will Cilla be able to keep the boy, her coven, and the trust of her family? Or will this Southern Wiccan get battered and fried?


Thank you, Susan! Your experience exemplifies the idea that we relate to others by how we are alike. We are all human—with quirks, desires, flaws, habits, fears, etc. And that’s what makes us able to relate to all kinds of characters and situations.

Writing fiction requires us to sink into other characters’ perspectives, and sometimes those characters will be very different from us. (I’m not a serial killer, or male, or a unicorn shapeshifter, and I don’t want to be any of those things (okay, the unicorn one might be cool *grin*).) Yet our job as writers means that we have to bring these characters to life.

Likewise, readers often enjoy the “mental vacation” of going somewhere new and different in their minds, so we might write about settings and time periods different from our own. Rather than bemoan that fact and dread the thinking and research the story will require, we can embrace the challenge and enjoy learning new things. *smile*

Is writing about something you don’t know intimidating or a challenge to embrace? Have you heard the “write what you know” advice before? Do you think that’s good or bad advice? Why? Where has your research led you in your writing?

P.S. Today is also Susan’s birthday and the release day for Southern Fried Wiccan! Yay! Congrats and happy birthday, Susan!

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Comments — What do you think?

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Susan Sipal

Thank you so much, Jami, for letting me share my research and my story with you today! And thanks for the birthday & book release wishes. ;-0 I can’t think of a better way to spend it than with a fabulous person on her incredible blog. You’ve worked so hard to make this space a place where writers can share and learn and grow so that we CAN adventure into new territory in our writing.

Thank you!

D.M. Kilgore

Great post! I’m a big believer in thinking outside the “write what you know” box. If I only wrote what I “know” I would never get more than one or two books out before I had nothing left to say! I’m a love-of-learning kind of gal and totally agree that the discovery and journey make my writing life so much better. =)

Susan Sipal

So totally agree, DM. It’s much more exciting to expand my world with writing outside my ordinary life. 😉

Lara McGill
Lara McGill

Happy Birthday, Susan! Southern Fried Wiccan sounds really good. I think I’ll head over to Amazon and check it out.

Susan Sipal

Thank you so much, Lara! I hope you like it.

Jeanne FOguth

Jami, thank you for dealing with this topic. While I agree with J.K. Rowling about “taking this journey along with my characters”, in many ways, I also try to write what I know, particularly when it relates to the laws of physics.
For instance, a few years ago, I began reading a post-accopolictic novel by a ‘known name’, which was based in an ice age. The author lived in a tropical area and while the characters were good, the setting ruined the novel – at least for me. The author had ‘big wet flakes of snow’ falling when it was supposedly – 60F … The colder it is, the drier it is. To the best of my knowledge when it is lower than -20, it is too cold to snow and any snow already on the ground is so dehydrated that it crunches when stepped on.
Therefore, I would like to suggest that if an author is writing about a setting where the weather is different than they are familiar with, they at very least find someone familiar with that sort of weather/climate to be a beta reader.

Susan Sipal

Very good points, Jeanne. I have a good friend who is a biologist and she’s always complaining about the science used in novels. But, like Jami said, that’s why I emphasize the importance of research.

Thanks for commenting!

Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle)

Happy Birthday, Susan! Loved your article and stepping outside of what we know. Like others, if I only wrote what I knew, it would be an autobiography and done in a single not-so-interesting book. How wonderful to take journeys into minds and experiences of people I don’t know and imagine myself being them. I can totally get into being a unicorn or a dragon. What fun.

Anyway, I grabbed a quote from your post and put it in Goodreads so I can save it.

I’ve written stories from ancient Israel to contemporary, about PTSD, domestic violence, and fantasy occupations from acting to motorcycle racing. Doing the research is part of the fun of writing and with my laptop, I take journeys way beyond what’s imaginable.

Happy Release day, Susan, and thanks Jami for your incredible blog.

Susan Sipal

Thank you Rachelle! Both for your lovely comments and for sharing my quote on Goodreads!

It sounds like you’ve written some fascinating stories. I’d love to know what you wrote about ancient Israel.

Glynis Jolly

I know a little, and I do mean very little, about a number of subjects. Having some idea, as small as it may be, about what I want to write helps me. I end up doing research along the way though because I don’t know enough to feel that I’m being authentic.

Susan, I should follow your lead and find the “back roads” of the small town I live in.

Susan Sipal

Good luck searching out your back roads, Glynis! Maybe it will lead you into a new story. And, I’m with you…that need to be authentic really pushes me in my research.

Thank you for sharing!


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Valid points. But then I love the research a new project requires. Your message “Write what you want to learn about” is now a little sign above my writing station.

Susan Sipal

Thanks so much, Mike! I love the research, too. Perhaps too much. I’ll often use research as a procrastination tool because it’s just so fun.

Good luck with your writing!

Christina Hawthorne

Happy Birthday, Susan, and thank you for a fun post. There advantages to writing what you know, but it’s also a comfort zone and that’s a bit close to stagnation. It’s always important that we stretch and, as Susan stated, grow.

Susan Sipal

Thank you, Christina! As much as I love living in the comfort zone, I guess that’s not a good thing for writing. 😉

Gabriela Rodriguez
Gabriela Rodriguez

I’m sorry if I’m using this space to let you know that I really liked and enjoyed your news letter on “Write what we know”? And the article of S.P. Sipal. I recently started to write, and I have many faults at writing still since, I’m quite an introvert. The articles you post on your news letter have helped me eased a bit. But I’m extremely nervous I will publish my first book. Thanks to God and my family, in a couple of months, but I can’t feel feeling unsure. All I wanted to say was thank you because I have acquired some books like a Thesaurus for writers. To assist me in my writing, and your newsmakers which I save as a guide.


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