How Writing What You Know Enriches Your Story—Part 1: Seeking A Setting

One thing about me is that I thrive on comfort. If given the option to sit at home and write, wearing as little as possible, I’d take it. This, of course, transitions into my writing. I need a lot of creative space in my own mind when putting together a new story. If certain aspects of the creation process don’t come naturally, nothing moves forward. Figuring this out, I soon bought into a very popular idea amongst prominent writers today: Write What You Know.

This doesn’t mean I have to write about growing up in the South Bay, but it does mean that the more information I can pull from my own life to enhance my stories, the more space I have to explore my imagination.

Now I don’t want to sound like some pompous asshat who spontaneously figured out that this was a good idea. I had to hear this principle several times, not know what it meant, and get about 60,000 words into my first (failed) story arch before I understood what Write What You Know really meant. By the way, that first story arch was in Boston, and explains what prompted a certain British doctor to move to a certain city by the bay…

So what exactly happened? Why didn’t I finish it? Well first, like so many first attempts at serious writing, I realized I wasn’t ready for the task I had put before myself. The characters required much more than I was able to give them in terms of development. I was not capable of fleshing out scenes and narratives. Worst of all, I was spending 60%+ of my time just researching the city of Boston! I had never been there before, and I needed to know where the main characters lived, worked, how long it took to travel from place to place, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, this was fun at first, but gradually it began to bog down my creative process. Seeing the issue, I tried to simplify my points of interest to work around the problem. This got me going for maybe a day or two, then the amateur historian in me started to go crazy since I wasn’t actually setting my story in the real Boston, just an imaginary place which also happened to be named after the real US city. I wasn’t confident with any of my backdrops and wasn’t doing research (something I LOVE doing almost as much as writing). Suffice to say, things did not get better, and my story suffered for it.

So I stopped on that story, flipped a couple tables in frustration, took a month off from writing to pout, then came back to examined the issue. I realized I couldn’t write a setting without at least having some real life image to base the setting on and just couldn’t write without researching an area for accuracy. That’s when I decided to start another story and to set it someplace I would not have said issues, because of my innate familiarity. So I chose San Francisco.

As soon as I began drafting a scene, building layouts came normally, because I’d been there. Sam’s Shop from The Burden of Knowledge was a store in an area known as South Park in SOMA, which I would pass every day during lunch to get a gluten free grilled cheese sandwichs. Then, if I wanted a character set in a particular place I had not visited before, I just drove there and scouted it out! I actually went to Haight-Ashbury, found a house that fit what I wanted for Lockwood’s home and committed it to memory.

Suddenly I had the space to flesh out my characters and expand on my plots. Building layouts were easier because I knew, generally, how the buildings were going to be designed.

I am not saying everyone should do what I do. I am lazy, but in my laziness I find the space to push myself to my limits. In the next post I’ll go into the fleshing out of a character. Until then, good day!


Stephan is not only an aspiring author but works with creatives to help them acheive success in life and project management as well. If you are interested in Stephan's time and project management consultation or ghost writing services, please email

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