“Write what you know.” What writer hasn’t heard that sage advice?
Like “relentlessly cut the adverbs” and “avoid clichés like the plague,” “write what you know” is a good rule of thumb. Some writers, though, obsess about the advice until it also acquires four fingers and a palm.
Here’s the thing: “Write what you know” is nothing more than a platitude. It’s the type of advice authors spit out automatically because it sounds profound. Scratch the surface, though, and it becomes apparent the phrase is vague, confusing, and imparts no true wisdom. “Write what you know” can bring authors-in-training to a dead stop because they can’t imagine how anyone could be interested in daily routines that seem humdrum to them. The axiom tempts experienced authors to produce lazy, boring fiction.
Here’s the unvarnished truth: All authors write what they know. The behavior is unavoidable. “What we know” is what we’ve learned through our life experiences: our thoughts; emotions; education; interactions with the natural world, other humans, and animals; spiritual beliefs, and all the other things that make each of us unique. “What we know” makes us who we are. Consequently, “what we know” enters our fiction whether or not we extend an invitation.
To be sure, some authors—medical doctor Michael Crichton and attorney John Grisham, for example—acquire specialized knowledge from their careers, education, travel, or mere happenstance. It’s never a mistake to incorporate that material into a story as long as the information is relevant and can be inserted in a way that doesn’t “feel” forced. Readers are smarter than many writers think, though. They can tell when story elements have been squeezed in to satisfy the vague command to “write what you know.” No matter what you know, if it’s not essential to the story at hand, pretend you don’t know it.
Instead, try writing what you don’t know.
There. I said it. I slapped traditional wisdom upside the head, and I’m not the least bit apologetic. Those of you who yearn to throw rocks at me, now’s your chance.
Why do I encourage writers to commit professional sedition? Because writing what we don’t know is infinitely more interesting and inspiring. Genre fiction is nothing more than a series of “What if…?” strung together by characters, settings, and events. If that doesn’t indicate soul-deep curiosity, I don’t know what would.
Writing what you don’t know gives you an opportunity to attack the unfamiliar; to expand your horizons, your knowledge, and your imagination. When people learn something new, human nature encourages them to share the information. By writing what you don’t know—or didn’t know—you can infect readers with the same wonder, excitement, and enthusiasm you experienced during the journey to discovery.
Did I write about those characters and their challenges anyway? You bet, and part of the fun was researching how outlaws robbed banks and how so-called spiritualists hooked marks in the nineteenth-century American west.
In other words, I wrote what I didn’t know, at least before I wrote the story. Most of us who write fiction are always writing what we don’t know. That’s why folks often hear us griping, in a good-natured way, about disappearing down research rabbit holes.
Don’t be afraid to kick “write what you know” to the curb and write what you don’t know. The effort can be rewarding…but more than that, it’s fun.
Cowboys, Creatures, and CalicoVols. 1 and 2
Twelve authors, twelve romances, and a whole herd of things that go bump in the Old West night.
A failed bank robber and a phony psychic find their soulmates after she accidentally summons a pair of dishonest-to-goodness ghosts.
If trade didn’t pick up in this no-horse burg, Pansy Gilchrist would pack her tent and take the first train back east…as soon as Maurice’s Museum of Mysterious Oddities got anywhere near a hamlet large enough to warrant its own railway depot. Folks in New York and Boston threw money at spiritualists. If Mr. Barnum was correct about suckers, Madame Minerva could be in business for a long, long time.
Why had she allowed that nincompoop Maurice to talk her into this traveling nonsense? She and Emile had swindled larger crowds with Dr. Goodbody’s Kickapoo Medicine Show…and found themselves run out of town less often. Kickapoo Indian Sagwa! Snake Oil Liniment! Miraculous Elixirs to Cure What Ails You!
Demonstrating the sure-fire remedies had cured Emile right into his grave. Pickled.
Muttering foul words under her breath, she set a bucket under another leak in the canvas.
When a gust of wind whipped open the tent’s flap, she jerked upright, pulled her shawl around her shoulders, and faced the opening with the cryptic smile she’d worked hard to perfect.
A tall, drenched form ducked inside, and the smile flattened. Well, that was a waste of effort.
Seldom had she seen a more bedraggled man. Water poured from his hat brim in a river, bypassing the mud spattered from his boots to the middle of his chest. Even the saddle riding his shoulder was slathered in muck.
Still, the casual slouch in his posture, the appreciative, half-lidded leer betrayed a calculated gamble on seduction. Perhaps he wasn’t the only mark in the spider’s parlor.
Pansy forced her voice to the bottom of her throat, infusing her words with a gypsy lilt. “You seek Madame Minerva’s counsel?”
A grin just shy of lascivious slid onto his lips. “For now.”
Slime on the hoof. With a dramatic sweep of her hand, she waved him to a chair. The saddle thunked to the ground. His soggy hat landed on the horn. Then, with a half bow, he echoed her dramatic sweep and seated her on the far side of the table before leaning close to her ear.
“My mother was Romany, little lady.” The low, smooth drawl caught her breath in a vise. “That’s about the worst impersonation I’ve ever heard.”
Buy Links: B & N Nook Vol. 1 Vol. 2 Smashwords Vol. 1 Vol. 2