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What Do You Know?
by Moira Allen
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On the one hand, it discourages us because we assume it means we can't write about things we don't know. So, for example, if you'd like to write a mystery novel but haven't stumbled across a corpse larger than that of your pet hamster, you might be wondering--how could I possibly create a credible detective? I don't know anything about murders, murderers or solving murders--and if I don't know, it's bound to show.
On the other hand, it discourages us because we tend to regard what we do know as monumentally uninteresting. We tend to want to read about things that are new, exciting, and unfamiliar. And precisely because the things we know are old and familiar to us, we regard them as being in just the opposite category to what we suppose other people would want to read about.
I've certainly had both reactions to the "write about what you know" cliché. But I've just spent the last three months working on my novel, and along the way, I've developed a new perspective on just what it means to "write what you know." The plot of my novel definitely does not involve situations that I have personally experienced; it involves, for one thing, a ghost--and I can say with reasonable confidence that, with the exception of a childhood certainty that I saw one of my departed cats in her accustomed place by the heater, I have never seen a ghost. That hasn't stopped me from writing about the experience.
However, I also decided to set my novel in England. I've spent several years laboring over a historical romance set in 18th-century England--and it's still stuck somewhere around Chapter 4, which is where I started running into a few too many things that I didn't know. So I decided to try something a bit different: Having recently returned from spending 15 months in England, I decided to write about the England I did know--the England I lived in.
Thus, my character experiences what it's like, as an American, to try driving on the "wrong" side of the road. She gets to experience English heating (as in "nonexistent in summer"), the joy of scones, the fun of shopping at Tesco. When she visits a hillfort or a cathedral or a castle, I hope the reader will feel that they're seeing the "real deal" as well. And I've found that this simple act of "writing what I know" has brought my character to life--and made her surroundings and experiences far more real than I ever imagined.
Now, I hear some mumbling in the background... "That's all very well, you got to spend 15 months in England, and that's interesting and unfamiliar, but my life is still Dullsville..." Well, then, let's move on to some novels that I've recently picked up. I've just discovered a set of mysteries in which the protagonist is a travel agent (by Emily Toll if anyone is interested)--and the author is clearly writing about what she knows. (She doesn't know a great deal about murders, I'd say--but she certainly knows her travel.) There's another mystery series by a woman who sells antique prints--and so, of course, the world of print-selling becomes as key part of her tale. I quite enjoyed yet another novel in which the protagonist breeds and shows purebred poodles--as I've spent quite a lot of time at dog shows with my sister in her own dog-breeding days.
On the unpublished side of things, I've been corresponding with a writer based in Nigeria--and this writer's ability to evoke a sense of time and place is absolutely amazing. I have never been and undoubtedly will never be to Nigeria--but now I'm getting a glimpse of the country that I would never have seen before.
Unless you live in a box, you know something that you can bring to life in your writing--and that you can use to bring your writing to life. It might be as simple as the town or region in which you live. If you live in Los Angeles, for example, don't try to set your mystery in some Colorado town that you've never visited; set it in Los Angeles. Then, it will be enjoyably familiar to your Angeleno readers, who will love discovering places they know--and it will be intriguing to readers who have never been to the City of Angels and now have a chance to visit it through your prose.
If your hobby is stained glass art, let your protagonist work with glass--and he or she will seem far more real than someone attempting a career or interest that you know nothing about. (Only do me a favor: if your hobby is cooking and you want to write mysteries, please leave out the recipes... I confess, I'm growing weary of the mystery that reads along the lines of "Did you hear that John was murdered? No? Let's sit down and eat these fabulous cookies made from a German recipe brought over by my great-grandmother Alice while I tell you all about it...")
And don't overlook what you knew as a source of material. Those of us who can remember things like carbon paper and telephones with dials instead of push buttons and (OK, here's where I'm really dating myself) laundry soap that came in cakes have something to share as well. And who knows? Before long, there will be a market for stories by writers who can remember back when we used such archaic things as Facebook and Twitter and had to use a cell phone to access the Internet on the road...
The bottom line is that writing about what you know can lend a sense of reality and authenticity to your writing that makes the reader believe you. And when the reader believes that you know what you're talking about when you describe your character, the stained glass artist who lives in Los Angeles and bakes German cookies, the reader is more inclined to believe you when that character stumbles over a body or runs into a ghost.
It's when the reader can't manage to believe in your character, because you are trying desperately to invent someone more "interesting" than anything or anyone you actually know, that you run the risk of losing the reader's belief--and attention. If my protagonist runs into a ghost in an English castle, the readers won't mind--but if she climbs out of bed in her English B&B and turns up the thermostat after having spent the evening watching ten different TV channels, a whole bunch of my readers are going to declare, "You don't know what you're talking about!" and put the book down, never to pick up another title with my name on it.
So the next time someone tells you, "Write about what you know," don't be discouraged. Be encouraged. You know more than you think--and by the time you're done, so will your readers.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.