Monday, May 5, 2014

Write What You Know (Or Think You Know)

Tomorrow’s podcast is all about writing what you know. This topic is actually under quite a bit of debate in the writing world. I mean, I’m a fiction writer. A creator. I should be able to write about anything, right?


Tolkien wrote an entire, brand-new language and created an imaginary history spanning ages. Austen wrote quirky perspectives about social circles in England. In fact, many of the greats used elements of their specialties in their writing, and those elements, in part, are what make their works so wonderful.

The trick isn’t to only write what you know. If all authors did that, we’d only ever read deep, introverted books about real life. And real life isn’t that exciting (usually, there are always exceptions).

Writing what you know can mean writing versions of real life, whether yours or a friend’s. It can also mean using your Master’s degree in forensics to write a mystery thriller. At the very simplest, it can mean giving your protagonist a dog that acts like your dog. I often vaguely assign a person I know to a character I’m writing, which really helps when I get to a tricky scene. Instead of completely making up a reaction from a pretend person, I simply think of that friend and what they would do in that situation.

Sometimes writing what you know can simply be writing something that means a lot to you. One of the things I want to bring to the world is an intelligent, real female protagonist who doesn’t turn into an idiot when a love interest walks by. I plan on writing many of these types of girls, because it strikes so near to my heart.

On the other, less organic hand, Google can tell you a lot of things you don’t know. I call those times “Dear Google” moments. Sometimes you need to know how long a horse can gallop or canter before it keels over. Or how much blood you can lose before you black out. I've spent hours looking up IEDs, blunderbusses, and the amount of accelerant needed to create a certain blast radius. If the government hasn’t figured out by now that I’m a writer, I’m definitely on some kind of list for suspect Google searches.

In some ways, the adage of writing what you know can feel confining. The trick is to balance it with things other people know as well as things that you pull out of the air. It’s that balance of truth and imagination that will hook readers in and keep them reading until the end.

What are your favorite things to write about or read?

If Michelle only wrote what she knew, all her characters would be sarcastic, speak French, and have a strange affinity for wearing black skinny jeans with DIY moccassins. Her writing schedule keeps her really busy, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

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