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?”