Write what you know – or not

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

When you’re starting out as a writer, you get a common piece of advice: write what you know.

6067028560_bc1e61fc0e_zOn a certain level, this makes sense. You’re just starting. You’re figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Keeping things familiar can make that easier. Maybe you tap into the emotions of your past, or your family experiences, or your hometown. And that’s cool – up to a point. Beyond that point, you’re actually doing yourself – and your reader a disservice. And here’s why.

When you limit your writing pool to things you know absolutely – your town, your feelings, your experiences – the well dries up. You can only mine stuff for so long. And the familiar doesn’t encourage growth.

Case in point. When I started writing, I figured I’d be writing traditional mysteries. After all, I grew up on Agatha Christie, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden – staples of amateur detectives. But when I actually started writing, I had a hard time connecting to those stories. Then I conceived an idea – based on something that actually happened at a writers’ retreat, as a matter of fact. I started playing “what if” in my head. I wrote the story, and shipped it off to an editor.

Imagine my surprise when she said, “You’ve got the start of a nice police-procedural here, but it needs some work.” Wait, what? Police-procedural? Not what I intended to write at all. That stuff is hard. You have to know things. Get things right. I can’t do that! I’m not a police officer, I don’t even play one on TV!

Except that I loved this story. I loved these characters. They wouldn’t stop talking to me. So guess what? I learned about police procedure. I bought a book, took an online class, and participated in a citizen’s police academy. I found resources and asked questions.

And when my state trooper protagonist decided that he was a coffee and beer snob, I learned some more. Where to find, and how to distinguish fine coffee. The most current story surrounds home brewing, so I’m researching beer. FYI, I don’t drink coffee or beer. I can’t stand either of them. But I’m not going to let my ignorance stand in the way of the story. Not any more.

But I better get it right, because I’m certain that readers will tell me if I don’t. And I owe it to them to be as accurate as I possibly can (nobody’s perfect, after all). They’ll forgive me a few minor points, but only if it’s apparent that I’ve put in the effort.

And besides, research is fun. You might not be able to travel to Paris or China. You certainly can’t travel to 16th century England (unless you happen to have a T.A.R.D.I.S. stashed in your basement). But the Internet is a wild and wonderful place. And every once in a while, an opportunity presents itself that is just too good to pass up. Case in point: I’m attending a Writers Police Academy this fall. I’m road-tripping to North Carolina with a friend of mine, another crime fiction writer. I anticipate lots of fun and loads of learning.

So yeah, if you’re starting, write what you know. But I heard an better variation on this recently from yet another writer friend: Write what you want to know. Because your passion for learning will infuse your writing and entice the reader. You’ll end up with a better story, one that excites you and your audience.

And really, isn’t that worth a few hours of research time on the Internet?

Image courtesy of Nicola; used under creative commons license.

2 Replies to “Write what you know – or not”

    1. I really need to check my comments more frequently. Thanks, LD. I’m very excited for this trip. It’s amazing what you learn when you venture out of that comfort zone.

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