Don’t “Write What You Know”

Don’t “Write What You Know”

The Writer’s Corner: The Craft of Writing Political Thrillers

“Write what you know.”

That’s the common wisdom among many authors and creative writing teachers. “It brings an air of authenticity,” they say. “You’ll have more color and feel to your descriptions.” This is all true, as far as it goes. However, unless you have lived an amazingly exciting life, writing what you know will quickly become very limiting.

I have never killed anyone. I’ve never jumped out of an airplane or fired automatic weapons or endured enhanced interrogation techniques. I have two sons who have served in the Israeli military, one of whom is in special forces. But that’s the closest I’ve come. Yet Marcus Ryker, the hero in my latest series of thriller novels, has done all of these things. I could have modeled him after myself—but that would have been unbelievably boring. Who wants to read about a failed political consultant–turned–novelist?

Thus, I’m not a big fan of the whole “write what you know” philosophy.

Instead, I tell young writers, “Write where you live in your head.”

What is it that keeps you awake at night? What are your dreams and your fantasies? What are your worst-case scenarios? If these things are living in your head, that’s a good indication of the type of book you want to write, the kind of people you want to write about and the sort of locations where your books will take place. I don’t write about failed political consultants; I write about people who are actually advisors to world leaders or who are world leaders themselves. I write about those who want to harm these presidents and prime ministers and kings and about the brave men and women who will lay down their lives to stop those plots. In other words, I write about people whose lives are a lot more exciting than my own.

That doesn’t mean I have nothing in common with my characters. Perhaps there is a little bit of me in each of them. While I am Gentile on my mom’s side, I am of Russian Jewish origin on my father’s. And as a Russian Jew, I have a tendency to think very darkly about the world, and for good reason. When people come after the Jews, it is not just to pick on us—it is to annihilate us. From Haman in the book of Esther all the way up to the current Iranian ayatollah, it’s always “Let’s wipe out all the Jews!” with these people. So my team comes by our pessimism honestly. I am not a glass-is-half-full guy. I’m also not a glass-is-half-empty guy. I believe the glass is cracked and it’s leaking fast!

This translates into my heroes, from Jon Bennett of the Last Jihad series right up to Marcus Ryker. They see threats. They are always on the lookout for the next shoe to drop. But rather than wallowing in the uncertainty, they analyze the danger. They look for ways to counter the threat—to stop it either before it happens or as it happens. And then they act and act decisively.

This is where I live in my head. What are the dangers that are out there? How can they be stopped? What kind of people have the chutzpah to confront evil before it’s too late?

I may not be a Wall Street strategist who made a fortune in the stock market like Jon Bennett or a fearless foreign correspondent like J. B. Collins or a decorated combat Marine and former Secret Service agent like Marcus Ryker. I don’t write these characters because they’re me. I write them because they are the kind of heroes that live in my head.

—Joel C. Rosenberg

For more about my novel writing, check out this interview I did with