All young writers get the advice to “write what you know,” but let’s face it, if we all did that, there’d be way too many books about sitting on your a** typing words into a computer all day. As you’ve grown as a writer what has this advice come to mean to you?
Julie: A work friend came into my office this week and said that she is loving Clock and Dagger, and knowing me makes it more fun. “How so?” I asked. “You’re in there. Like the colors they choose for the cards? Purple and green, just like StageSource.” She was right, of course. Part of me crept in, even when I didn’t mean for that to happen. But the whole “write what you know” should be “write what you can imagine.” You will ground things in your life, but I find a good google search and a long walk will free up my imagination to create what I didn’t know, but did imagine, would be a good story.
Sherry: Julie, one of the things that has so impressed me with your series is that no one would ever guess you didn’t know a lot about clocks until you started researching for the Clock Shop series. It’s a great example that you don’t have to write what you know. To me “write what you know” is also about what do you know that you don’t know you know. Right before I got the opportunity to write the garage sale series, I’d pitched my gemology series to our agent, John Talbot. He wasn’t interested in it but asked me what my hobbies were or what other things I knew about. After I stammered for a bit I finally said I liked to read. Then I slunk away. I would have never thought to mention I loved garage sales.
Edith: All of my series of course have bits of what I know, but what I love is widening what I know. I have some background in midwifery and in Quakers, but I had no idea of the depth and richness of my town’s history, or of the late 1800s and what a time of change it was. I absolutely love researching everyday life, political happenings, carriages, buildings, and attitudes of the era – and I didn’t know I would. Plus what Julie said, especially with my characters. Imagining how the mind of someone completely made up works, creating their motivations, following them around, writing down what they do – that’s the best.
Liz: I agree that a little bit of what you know informs everything you do, but there are so many opportunities to stretch. In the Pawsitively Organic series, I definitely know animals, but cooking is not my thing. So I have opportunities to learn all the time as I’m writing. Also, how many of us really know what it’s like to find bodies/investigate murders? Aside from the police-officers-turned-writers, probably not many of us. So we’re all researching, learning and stretching every day.
Barb: I think what this advice usually means is to write authentically. Make up people, but ground them in real and believable human emotions. Make up places, but give readers touchstones in those made-up places that help them believe they could be real. And give us imaginary plots and storylines–sometimes wildly imaginary–but do it in worlds with enough inner consistency that people are willing to go on the journey. Everything you have ever observed about the behavior of people, institutions, community, and place is relevant, and that is writing what you know. But then you can mix those up in wild and crazy ways, as long a you provide a foundation.
Jessie: I’ve always thought of this as an admonishment to to write the truth as you experience it. The plots and the details can vary wildly but to be a successful story, to resonate with readers, it should first strike a chord with the writer’s own truth. What do you value? What do you notice? What makes you angry or sad or elated ? That’s what you know. That’s what’s worth writing about for you.
Readers: What do you think? Can you tell when a writer is well-grounded in what they’re writing and when they’re making it up as they go along? Writers, do you or do you not, “write what you know?”
I agree with Barb: the place has to hang together and feel real. I DO contact authors when details don’t quite mesh, so if you have a spare ARC, you might want to cast it my way? (Almost finished The Abolition of Man which leaves me with the rest of The New Jim Crow)
Feeling real is one of our goals, Barbara!
Hi Barbara–ARCs are too late in the process for most publishers. You only get to make tiny little changes at that point. Next week Mythbusters is about when to get what reviewed, so thanks for starting the conversation!
Well, if anyone wishes to send a PDF (I think that is the term) earlier, I won’t turn it down. I used to substitute teach pre-K through 5 so I can even read Cursive. (If I can’t read it, you probably cannot either.)
It seems to me that the advice is true but on a deeper level than just sticking with the superficial aspects of life. If you’ve lived a bit you know some things that matter. You’ve felt great love, loss, sorrow, joy. You’ve had to start over, forgive, fight for something despite the cost. If these things are expressed with authenticity I could care less whether some detail about a gun or a kind of pie is accurate to the situation being described. Thanks for this blog. Friendship matters and your books show that you know.
Lovely words, G.K. Thanks!
Thank you G.K.!
I usually can’t tell if an author is making up the details as they go along unless I’ve lived in a particular area or have experience with a particular thing myself, but, when I’m reading reviews of books readers are quick to point out inaccuracies. I recently read a book that was set in Alaska and a few Alaskans blasted the book because they knew that certain aspects of the story clearly showed that the author wasn’t truly familiar with Alaska. Since I’ve never been to Alaska I would not have known the difference. I think intense research is probably necessary since there are those who will expose inconsistencies.
It’s true that setting an entire book in a place you’ve never been must be very difficult to get right. I don’t think I’d have the nerve. But I’ve also read Amazon reviews where writers were dinged for not knowing the state where they live! It’s like the blind man describing the elephant. Everybody describes different bits depending on their experience.
If you truly know a place or a profession or whatever, that lets you include the details that make your writing feel real to readers.
A few years ago I decided that I’d been getting to know a lot of places and professions for most of my life just so I could use them in books that I didn’t know I was going to write. Now I understand why I had such an erratic career!
I do really like it when people get a world really “right.” My husband worked in politics for 35 years and most TV shows and movies that attempt to show you a behind the scenes look get it soooo wrong it drives me crazy. But author Ross Thomas was an exception. He understood both politics and government and I loved that he did.
Primary Colors got it right too, if I recall. I love writing about historical institutions because there are always things going on behind the scenes that readers don’t know about.
Sheila, that is very similar to what I have been thinking lately, that I have spent my whole life collecting odd information for books I did not know, then, I was going to write.
I particularly enjoy reading books that teach me something new, which is why I pick up cozies featuring different businesses or hobbies. Unfortunately, some of them disappoint in that they only use the business as window dressing for the story. For me, the business needs to be an integral part of the story and not just vaguely referred to occasionally.
Grace, interesting point. My last two Maine Clambake Mysteries have taken place in the off season. Time to get back to the island!
One way to deal with that would be for her to be doing planning for the coming season, tossing ideas to others, etc. Maybe talking about what hadn’t worked the previous season and how she wants to change something the next season. All this keeps the reader in the midst of her business. You could even have family and/or friends rib her about some flops. Just a thought.
Maybe it means “write what you want to know” There is no better motivation for learning something than writing about it.
I agree with the saying, “Write what you want to know,” since you will spend a good, long time with the subject, so it better be interesting.
I like the “write what you want to know” idea. And “write what you love.” If a writer isn’t enthusiastic about a subject, the reader won’t be either. I knew very little (other than drinking it) about beer and brewing when I came up with the idea for my series. It’s been a lot of fun learning about it!
Yes, both of those! “Write what you want to know” and “write what you love.”
For me, I may not know the details of a certain profession or how to go about a certain process but I do know how it feels to be out of my depth picking up a new skill and I can imbue my character with that. So I can make it up as I go along and since she’s doing the same all that matters is does her experience feel real, is her frustration and self-doubt coming through, are her feelings of betrayal at learning a secret has been kept from her resonating – those are what draw in a reader.
Because writing what you know doesn’t always help if the 50 pages of details regarding how a nuclear sub works in The Hunt for Red October is the result. The success of that book is despite Clancy writing what he knew if every single person I’ve spoken about it with is any indicator.
Not letting your research show is important and challenging. I agree about having your characters learn things.
I have lots of thoughts on this.
Write what you know is good advice for a beginning writer. It gives them some place to start working on their writing skills without getting lost in research and learning what details need to be in something to get it right.
You probably already know about things you are interested in, so if you can write about them, you’ll love all the time you spend writing.
One author I love talked about going out and trying a wide variety of things so you know more to draw on when you go to write.
Which comes back to research. And if you have researched it, you then know about it, right?
I do like the idea of it also meaning what you know emotionally based on life experiences.
Okay, I’m rambling at this point, but I think there are a lot of meanings to this.
(And as for authors getting details wrong, I dinged an author of a book I wasn’t enjoying when they described a freeway I drive all the time as doing something it never does – continuing past the intersection where it actually merges with a larger freeway. Sorry, but after 5 minutes on Google maps, you’d know this.)
Mr. Google can be our friend!
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