Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 10, 2017

ASK DIANNE – Write What You Know

Q:  I’ve read and heard that beginning writers should “write what you know.” Is that true?

A:  Mark Twain’s famous advice to “write what you know” is a little simplistic.  Writing fiction or nonfiction that compels a reader to read it requires that you first feel compelled to write it.  Whether you know a little or a lot about your beloved subject, in the end you’ve GOT to “write what you love”.

For example, perhaps as a child you loved fire trucks.  You did not grow up to be a truck mechanic or a firefighter.   But you still love fire trucks.  This is good!  Your love for the subject will drive you to find the answers to your many questions about how fire trucks work, how they are used to fight fires, what is the training needed to drive one, and so on.  Your passion to find out everything about fire trucks will fuel your fiction or nonfiction, bringing out your best work.  Your enthusiasm will be contagious; readers will feel it the moment they pick up your book or read the article online.

How do you find out what topics or subjects you love as a writer?  One way is to keep a very simple journal of ideas that interest you.  Keep it pocket-sized and keep it with you as much of the day as you can.  When you think of something, jot it down quickly.  When you are casting around for ‘my next WIP’, this little notebook may come in handy.

Knowing what fuels your creative thought as a writer can be approached more formally when you have time.  Sit with a yellow legal pad and pen in a quiet space and ask yourself some questions:

What interested me as a kid?  (Chances are, on some level, it will still interest you.)

What interests me as an adult?  (Hobbies, sports, news stories, historical events or persons, etc.)

What jobs do I wish I had pursued? (Reality does not have to rear its ugly head here.  If you can’t carry a tune in a bucket but find the idea of working as an opera singer fascinating…you’d probably write something pretty good about the topic.)

Where have I loved vacationing or where would I love to travel? (Not just useful for selecting subjects to write about but also helpful for choosing a setting you and your characters could really get into.)

But what if you are not generating your own topics?  What if you’re taking on some assignments so you can keep the lights on?  I hear you!

I spent many years in marketing, advertising and corporate communications.  When I was assigned the task of writing brochures, ads, and other promotional materials, I made it my business to find out what things about that product or service ‘spoke’ to me along with what would appeal to the target consumer.  I used a Venn diagram, placing the client’s product or service in the center, and branching off from that, as many off-shoots of benefits and attractive features as I could surmise.  This became a useful document that I could refer to throughout my creative process.  It gave me enthusiasm for writing an effective piece for readers, and made the writing process fun for me, too.  I think this could also be useful when plotting out a nonfiction article or chapters in a nonfiction book.  For more information about what a Venn chart is and how to use it go to:

In short, write what you love….and love what you write.  Your readers will, too!


Dianne Ochiltree is a nationally recognized author of books for the very young. Her books have appeared on numerous recommended reading lists, classroom desks and library shelves.  Her bedtime book, LULL-A-BYE, LITTLE ONE, was a selected for the Dollywood Foundation’s childhood literacy initiative, Imagination Library in 2007. Her picture book, MOLLY BY GOLLY! THE LEGEND OF MOLLY WILLIAMS AMERICA’S FIRST FEMALE FIREFIGHTER, received the Florida Book Awards (FBA) Bronze Medal in the Children’s Literature category in 2012 and was chosen for the ALA’s Amelia Bloomer list of feminist literature for girls. Her picture book, IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT, won the FBA Silver Medal in 2013. Her 2015 title, IT’S A SEASHELL DAY, was given the FBA Gold Medal/Gwen Reichert Award as well as the Gold Medal for Florida picture book from the Florida Authors and Publishers Association. For more information about Dianne’s books, go to

Dianne, thanks for sharing your expertise with us. Another great answer.

REMEMBER: To send in your questions for Dianne. Use Kathy(dot)Temean(at) Please put ASK DIANNE in the subject box.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Dianne, this is another WONderful post, and thank you for the mention and link to a Venn diagram 🙂 I’m getting closer to the process of figuring out which tools work best for me in plotting and character development and this is another one to add to the pot!


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