Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Write what you know

Every author is hammered with the concept of "write what you know." What exactly does that mean?

For years, I thought it meant don't write about topics you aren't familiar with. Welp, I threw that out the window with my very first book. I wrote about Pompeii without ever having visited Italy, much less the famous site, but I have to tell you I spent MANY weekends in the library reading and looking at travel brochures - even learning Italian. And I interviewed people who had been there, including one woman who said "you absolutely can NOT write about it without having seen it." This is where I tell you she was impressed with my research when she actually DID read the book I refused to not write.

Recently, this warning has taken on a new meaning for me. I’ve been toying in a new genre, something I’ve always wanted to try. This wasn’t my first attempt, but this felt like my best shot. What I learned: write what you know means more than writing about your areas of knowledge. It means writing in your own voice. Sticking with the way you are geared. The genuine you.

The genuine me knows what goes into the genre I wanted to cross into, was raised in such a way as to understand and embrace what I needed to write, but my inner voice, my genuine me, doesn't write that way. I can slap in the "this goes here and that goes there," but that doesn't make the story relate-able, it makes it forced, at least for me.

Having finished the first draft, I sent out some queries to shop agents in my new market. One of them pointed out to me that what I'd written would be a tough sell. As written, there isn't really a market for it, in the first place. Interesting. I didn't realize the genre was that restrictive! Then I had a friend who writes in that genre check me, and beyond the market issue, she pointed out genre issues. Can I fix it? Yes, but this is where I'm going back to write what you know.

I've read books in this new-to-my-writing genre and enjoyed them, but that isn't how I write. In this experience, write what you know translates to "write in your voice, the genuine you." Not as a doctor writing medical romances or as a lawyer writing a legal thriller, but those are great examples. I'm not a doctor. I wouldn't be good at writing a medical romance. I'm not a lawyer. I wouldn't do well with a legal thriller. I'm just me, a hopeful romantic who looks for rainbows and personal connections and sometimes likes to search out the ghosts hiding in the corners.

Where does that leave me? The good news is I can work on my first draft and steer it back into my lane. That also means more brainstorming as I consider which of those things that drive my writing I want to incorporate.

Beep beep! Lane change! Time to write what I know.


  1. I think there are 2 sides to this. Writing what you "know" doesn't mean only write about things you've experienced. I was a teacher, but I've no desire to write a book about one. Even if I did, I'd have to do a lot of research, because I taught school in the early 70s. Times have truly changed. But I've written about covert operaatives, cops, and cowboys. I've never been any of these.
    The other side is write about characters you can connect with through observation and your own emotions. We've all been happy, sad, afraid. Faced obstacles. We can channel that for our characters and do our homework about the rest.
    I think you nailed it when you said your issue was the wrong "voice." Every author develops one, and it carries over regardless of genre. Nora Roberts/JD Robb comes to mind. You can "hear" her in both identities, even if the books are very different.
    You have your own voice. Go forth and use it! And good luck.