Write What You Know: Sage Advice or Hogwash?

 

 by Brenda Hill

 

While writing my first novel, I attended a lot of classes and read tons of how-to books. “Show, Don’t Tell” was a mantra I heard from most writing instructors, and it’s a technique writers must master in order for the material to come alive in the readers’ minds. It’s also one of the most difficult to learn.

But “Write What You Know?” I’d swallowed that line just as surely as a large-mouth bass swallows a June bug. And I came to an abrupt halt.

It would work if I, as a homemaker, wanted to write about taking care of a house, cooking, laundry, and washing windows. I could even throw in some pearls of wisdom about child rearing, and that book would be as interesting as watching seeds sprout.

A book about starting a business might have more interest, as I’ve had experience in opening a book store, but I wanted to write fiction. I wanted to write stories that other people would find interesting. I wanted to be a WRITER, but since I believed I could only write what I knew, I felt doomed. Everything in my experience was humdrum, and I didn’t know anything about an exciting life. How could I write fascinating novels that other people would be willing to buy and read?

But I’d proofed manuscripts written by writers who frequented my bookstore and knew they were homemakers and mothers as well. They weren’t sailing off for The Bahamas with a stud on each arm or closing in with drawn guns on the latest serial killer. 

I checked my bookshelves and found novels of many different genres, some written by the masters, but more written by ordinary people who’d developed skills as writers. Yes, Robin Cook was a doctor, but did those stories of medical murder truly happen? I hope not. Did Stephen King stay at the Stanley Hotel, go whacko and threaten his wife? Of course not. I’d been a fan of Don Pendleton’s series, The Executioner, and I doubt Mr. Pendleton invaded the mob’s lair and gunned them all down, or that Peter Benchley actually battled a giant shark to the death.

Did they write what they knew? It’s possible they may have started with an idea based on something they knew, but their stories evolved from something else—their imaginations—and their passion for adventure, for entertaining others. 

Now that I could do.  

My novel, Beyond the Quiet tells about a grieving widow who discovers her happy marriage was a sham. I wasn’t a widow, so I couldn’t write from actual experience, but I did lose my husband of thirty years to divorce, so I knew all the emotions: loss, shock, grief, betrayal, and rage. Some of my character’s other experiences, such as meeting a man who made her toes curl, hasn’t happened yet, but I have an active imagination. I’d love to meet a Terry O’Neal in my own life.

So in all fairness, the phrase, “Write What You Know,” may not be all hogwash. As writers, we should take our own life experiences, discard the mundane, remember the emotions we felt in our lives—especially the not-so-nice ones as they’re the juiciest—and use them for our stories.

Then let our imaginations soar. Be the adventurer who discovers Atlantis, or the woman whose mysterious ancestry leads her to an immortal Egyptian prince from the 18th Dynasty. Be the first female astronaut who lands on a distant planet in the forty-third galaxy. Or like Lisa in Beyond the Quiet, be a fortyish widow who falls in love and finally learns to live.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Brenda Hill. Brenda has authored several novels and her short stories have been published in a national women’s magazine. She’s edited for a small press, held the position of acquiring editor for another, and taught novel writing in two states. Her specialized courses of study included a novel’s structure as well as the opening chapter, pages that determine if an agent, publisher, or even a reader will want to turn those pages. Check out her website for free tips on writing, editing, and grammar.

 

9 thoughts on “Write What You Know: Sage Advice or Hogwash?

  1. Great advice! I, too, have struggled with the common advice about writing about what you know. I have a pretty quiet life, so if I don’t use my imagination (and do the research that historical fiction requires) my fiction isn’t likely to ignite emotions in its readers. Thank you for giving me some clarity on this subject!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Janet,

      I’m so glad I could help. Sometimes we ladies who lead quiet, ‘normal’ lives, feel as we have no basis to write or even say anything of interest to others, but oh, you know the quiet ones usually have the best imaginations! Go for it!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Sorry, Thomas. My replies aren’t in order. Don’t know how that happened, but you’re right about sci-fi and fantasy writers. And thrillers. Or like my latest, a shapeshifter from ancient Egypt. Thank God we follow our imaginations.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Writing what you know. Great advice. but I have to agree with Thomas, if that’s the case, there’s no Sci-Fi or Fantasy writers. Let’s me honest about it, how many of us have ever met a hobbit?

    That said, you can’t invent inside a vacuum. a Sci-Fi Writer should have at least some passing knowledge of science, and a fantasy writer know something about world building and such. Someone who did a first class job of writing about something he knew beans about was Tom Clancy. but what he did know was how to research things, and ask question. so I guess in a sense, he did write what he knew about.

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  3. Write what you know is not completely hogwash, as you have said. It may start off with something that you don’t know… but with enough study and research, you may find yourself soon becoming an expert at slaying demons and sailing seas, enough to even write a book about it. Right? 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Right! We start with our imaginations, creating story from our ‘what if’ questions, especially the ones that interest us, and do some research. Speaking of sailing seas, that reminds me of a great novel I read about thirty years ago about a woman sea captain. Written by a man. Loved it! Our imaginations are wonderful things and we must always nourish them. We have the universe at our command.

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