Write That Novel! But About What?

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, for short). Every year, aspiring writers commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel in November. As the organizers at nanowrimo.org put it, the project is a “fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing.”

So, that novel you’ve always wanted to write—November is your chance. You can make a commitment to trying to get your 50,000 words on the page by the end of the month.

But what should you write about? Ah, there’s the rub.

Write What You Know

Perhaps the best and oldest advice to aspiring writers is “Write what you know.” That is, don’t attempt to write from an experience that you don’t have or about a topic with which you’re unfamiliar.

Now, on a basic level this means that if you’re a young, White, suburban woman, you should probably not try to write about the life of an older, Black, city-dwelling man. Now, that’s not to say never—it’s just to say that you shouldn’t do so without extensive research to inform your writing and your understanding of the perspective of such an individual.

But on a deeper level, your writing should reflect you. That doesn’t mean that everything has to be autobiographical, but it should embody something of your life and experience. A writer should bring their experiences to bear in everything they write: whether it’s the experience of how people talk to each other, what they talk about, or the environment they live in.

Take these two examples. The first involves a topic I know nothing about:

Sheena looked over the engine. She’d made modifications to many engines just like it. In no time she would get this car to perform better than it ever had. She was known throughout the neighborhood as the person you got to turn your ordinary piece-of-junk into a hot-rod.

And now, something I am immediately familiar with:

He’d picked the coffee shop as a quiet place to work on a Sunday afternoon, but the engineering students sitting nearby would make that impossible. Their laughter, stories, and good-natured competitive ribbing of each other proved to be too distracting for him to be productive. But he wasn’t annoyed; there was something about their exuberance, their passion for their studies that kindled in him a fond recollection of his own studies all those years ago. Back when he, too, had been full of promise—when he had the whole world and his whole life before him. Only the aroma of his still-hot coffee broke through the reverie and called him back to the present and the task that lay before him.

In the first paragraph, it’s clear that I don’t know enough about cars and automobile engines to provide a convincing description of what Sheena is doing. Sure, I could have spent five minutes on Wikipedia looking up engine parts and street racing lingo, but that wouldn’t have made the text any more authentic.

In the second example, however, the four engineering students who are literally sitting right next to me as I type this provided the perfect experience to use as a basis for writing. I don’t actually have to be sitting here wistfully reflecting on my student experiences to be able to put myself in the mind of a protagonist who might. Because I can easily place myself in the world of that experience, it becomes easier to write about it and to put more of myself into it. I can more easily envision the coffee shop, the coffee, the voices of the students and incorporate those details into the writing.

Now, of course, you don’t have to be in a coffee shop to write about one, but if you’ve never been in one, it’ll be a lot harder to do.


It is entirely possible to write about something with which you have no direct experience; you don’t have to have been a murder suspect to write a murder mystery or have traveled into space to write science fiction. But before setting out to write either type of story, it would be really helpful to be familiar with the subject matter.

I could write a story about a mechanic who was really good at repairing car engines, but I’d have to research the topic in detail. I’d have to get to a point where the turns of phrase, the terminology, and the culture of such a person were familiar enough to me that I could write about them with a high degree of fluency. That is, I’d have to know—really know—something about it.

Now, in the case of science fiction or fantasy, you can’t really know about hyperspace or dragons, but you can become familiar with the genres. You can learn enough about the tropes to employ—or ignore—them effectively. The best way to do that is a time-tested method: read a lot.

Getting to It

Once you’ve picked something to write about, the best thing to do next is to get to it: start writing.

Crumpled paper and pencil - What to write

Don’t focus on getting it right or getting it perfect: get it down on paper. No one writes a perfect novel on a first draft—or even a second—so there will be plenty of editing and reworking to go through. (And when you need editing—we’re here to help!)

One final advantage of writing what you know about is that you will be more interested in writing it. Writing can be a slog and it helps when you care about and are engaged in the story you’re telling. Your passion for the story will come through your writing, and your readers will feel the same passion when they encounter it. They’ll care more because you care more.

So, go grab a pen and paper, or your computer keyboard, and get writing!