Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Write What You Know

When I started writing fiction one of the first "rules" I heard was to "write what you know." I thought about it and it made sense. Why? Because "what you know" is familiar and when you write about something you have knowledge of, the story will be more believable.

But I soon ran into a problem. Why? Because in the global scheme of things, I don't know an awful lot. Once I've written about being a wife, about motherhood and carpools and life in suburbia, about being a customer service agent on a Space Shuttle support contract, about middle age and life as an empty nest, then what? Does writing come to an abrupt halt because I've run out of "what I know?"

"Write what you know" is a good place to start because it makes those first efforts a bit easier. You're at least working from within a certain comfort zone and there will be some things you don't have to worry about. That leaves you plenty of time to worry about verb tenses, passive voice, point of view, dialogue, show versus tell and all the other "rules" you hear about.

Then there comes the day when you've run out of "what you know." What do you do then?

It's easy. You use your imagination, you do research and you watch and listen to the world around you. Draw on the people you know, the people you meet, the places you've been and want to go to, the books you've read, the movies you've read and every other type of experience you can imagine. Ask the question "What if..." and see what the answer is.

Then sit down and write what you don't know. That's what I've done for the last year because I certainly don't know about:
  • Owing back taxes and penalites to the IRS and having my husband commit suicide when he can't pay them
  • Taking a honeymoon alone because I found my fiance with another man on my wedding day
  • Working as the head of guest services at a ski lodge
  • Finding my fiance with another woman just weeks before the wedding
  • Single motherhood with a severly handicapped child
  • Being a female soldier blinded by a car bomb in Iraq
  • Donating eggs for an infertile Jewish couple
  • Discovering the girl I suspect is my husband's mistress is in fact his illegitimate daughter
  • Having cybersex with a much younger man and finding out he's my best friend's son
  • Planning my daughter's wedding and having the plans hijacked by her social-climbing stepmother
Nope, I haven't personally experienced any of those subjects but I've sold short stories about them. And apparently they were believable enough for an editor to buy. How did I write about things I didn't know? Where did I get the ideas?

I got them from people I knew, articles in newspapers and magazines, and online research liberally mixed with my own imagination. And how do I feed my imagination? I read a lot. I watch and listen a lot. Not all the ideas I jot down end up as stories. Some days I just can't quite weave a story around that juicy bit of gossip I overheard at the mall. But I never discard it because the day may come when the light bulb goes on and it all falls into place.

Keep writing what you know and when you run out of ideas, keep on writing because you actually know a lot more than you think.

P.S. As of Monday I could definitely write about a woman on a diet. While the rest of the Playfriends are on the Weight Watchers program, I'm doing the South Beach Diet. So far I've not killed anyone over sugar -- or more precisely, the lack of it.

P.P.S. Thank you all for the birthday wishes. It made the day even more special knowing you care. :-)


Jen said...

My life is boring. If I have to write what I know, I'm in trouble! And I have to hand it to you, you have some TERRIFIC ideas. I have serious idea envy. ;-)

Angel said...

The first person to read my first book told me that I should "write what I know" instead of what I had written. So I went to a published author who had been very friendly and helpful and asked her if that was true.

She said she'd never been to Scotland in the 1600s, never attended a ball or swordfight, or been to war before there were guns. But she still wrote about that. The key was the characters. We all KNOW people. That's what makes it what we know.

Maven Linda Howard said...

If I wrote just what I knew, I'd be writing about dogs, cows, and truck drivers. Oh, wait -- I know a bunch of medical stuff, too, and football stuff, and astronomical stuff, and fishing stuff, and boat stuff, and weapons stuff, and jet stuff, and shoe stuff, and
. . . stuff. So you aren't limited to what you've experienced, just to whatever interests you, which pretty much means the sky's the limit.

Write away!

Problem Child said...

I think people confuse "write what you know" with "write about your day job." Yeah, I know about being a mom, a ballet dancer, an English teacher and a bartender. Yeah, THAT's going to support a writing career...

In order to know something, just go research it--then you'll know it. And it will make you much more interesting at dinner parties as well because you'll be able to talk about all kinds of things.

Kathy said...

Let's see if blogger lets me do this.

While I wouldn't want to live in the past and KNOW firsthand what life was like, unless I was just visiting, I enjoy researching all things historical, visiting museums and such. Whatever we do in life, whether that's reading, sightseeing, actually experiencing and living things until we KNOW them, we still have validity when we write. Our brains are a vacuum. There is no end to the knowledge we can draw from. And I feel in my heart, once imagined things are actually written, they are no longer imagined but reality.


Instigator said...

Boy, if I wrote only what I knew then I'd have very little to say :-) Although, I've often found that you soak up whats around you without even noticing.

Come on, PM, come join the rest of the playground on the dark side. WW isn't so bad. Really. It isn't. Mwahahahah


Kathy said...

Ah, the dark side. Muahahahaha!

Smarty Pants said...

Research is important, but if you're going to be lazy, then definitely stick to what you'd know without you've flown to Havana and know how long the flight is, been to Georgia's coast and walked on that beach.

I'm really wanting to make a trip to Savannah for "research." That and to get on Paula Deen's cooking show. Of course, they're only filming while we're in Scotland. Poo! Wonder how many points are in one of her garlic cheddar biscuits...?


Playground Monitor said...

Come on, PM, come join the rest of the playground on the dark side. WW isn't so bad.

Yeah, but SBD is free! And I've already started so I'm in for the duration. Besides, this is what my doctor told me to do -- stop eating carbs.


Smarty Pants said...

If you can get through the first two weeks, you'll be fine! Last time I did it, my GS cookies showed up on day 2. I thought I might kill...if my WW doesn't perk up shortly, I'll be there with you once my 3 months are up. My mom has lost 30 lbs doing low carb in the time I've lost 5 doing WW. Argh.

Maven Linda Howard said...

The key is exercise. Sorry. You have to build up your muscles in order to speed up your metabolism.

Playground Monitor said...

Been doing at least 30 minutes of very brisk walking (have Earth, Wind and Fire's "Let's Groove" on the MP3 player to keep me in step) every day except today cause of the weather. I'll do some floor exercises tonight instead.


Smarty Pants said...

Boo Exercise! Hooray Beer!

(If you've never seen the commercial, that won't be even remotely funny. Oh well...)

Angel said...

I'm sure my doctor would love for me to give up carbs, but I know myself and I can't do that for the rest of my life, so there's no point in starting. I might lose a lot of weight fast, but as soon as I start eating carbs again, it will all come back. :)

Pat said...

Hi Instigator - Just want to let you know and thank you for my prize - the books arrived in today's mail. Didnt know what I had won but 2 books are always a great prize!!!!

beth said...

Great article, PM. You hit that nail squarely on the head! Thanks for a motivating read. ~ bj