The Myths of Write What You Know


Illustration of Marilyn Monroe in the famous subway wind scene
My mother loved watching Marilyn Monroe

 

I grew up in Los Angeles, and just devoured any books on Hollywood.  It was fascinating to read the behind the scenes of how John Chambers put the makeup on the actors for The Planet of the Apes.  I read Daily Variety every day at the college library, and the local gossip columns published in the newspapers.  The internet’s largely made some of it go away, but we had columns where people could write in and ask, “What happened to X?” and find out.

So I gravitated into what I’m working on now, a mystery set in Hollywood in 1947.  If you didn’t catch that, it was right after World War II, so I got veterans in there, too.  I’m mostly research fashion of the times, types of cars, popular colors.  I’ve had to do geography as well, since I only saw the mountains.  I didn’t know what they were called.  😦

And I still remember my high school short story about a serial killer who picked his victims by random choice.  Needless to say, that didn’t win any prizes.

“Write what you know” is one of those first “rules” that writers are taught when they think about writing a novel.  And everyone scratches their head and tries to figure out what it means.

But it’s also a piece of advice that I think has been way oversimplified. I’ve wondered if it originally came from a pro writer and somehow got dumbed down over time.

I gravitated to the serial killer story because it was the idea (and this will date me, but the year that story popped up was when the Hillside Strangler in the news).   You get this idea, you write the idea as is and the idea is the story.  BIG myth.

Also a relative who shall be nameless suggested the random choice with pure INTP logic.

Okay, yeah.

Many people–not just writers–view ideas as rare and precious.  So you get one, you write it.  Even if it is way, way, way out your experience.

Like the writer who knew nothing at all about medicine and had to do research into how surgery was done for a book.  She was scandalized at the thought of a best selling writer saying he didn’t do a lot of research.  But maybe, maybe, she should have picked a different direction for the story that didn’t involve researching surgery.

One she was more familiar with.

That’s where write what you know comes into play.

It’s not about making your character head of HR because you’re head of HR.  It’s about finding an expertise that you already have because you’re interested in the topic.

Tamara Pierce said that she grew up reading about the knights in England.  Her books are about knights and people who live in the times of knights.

Michael Connelly was a crime reporter (and has a non-fiction book on those days).  He writes about a police detective who solves crimes in L.A.

Elizabeth Moon was a Marine (ooh-rah).  She writes about characters who in some form of military, whether in fantasy or science fiction.

Makes the research a lot easier, too.  It’s one of the reasons I’m doing a Hollywood mystery.  But no serial killers are involved.

 

4 thoughts on “The Myths of Write What You Know

  1. Harvey Stanbrough

    I personally hope you’ll go ahead and write the serial killer thing, maybe with a slant. Maybe it’s a soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq who has an overpowering desire to see what it’s like to kill someone. Maybe his/her victims are all enemies and maybe not. And even if they are all enemies, maybe sometimes the motivation in war is not simply killing for self-preservation, but killing itself. (Hey, that’s not a bad logline.)

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  2. Peggy

    I’ve heard it said that what writers know is people – how they think and act and react – and that’s what is “really” meant by the write-what-you-know advice.

    I’ve also heard it expanded to “write what you want to know,” and I think I like that better as a general rule.

    Of course, how any of that applies to fantasy worlds and stories is beyond me. GRIN

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    1. That also makes it really hard if it’s a younger writer because they don’t have that life experience. All of theirs is childhood. I remember how hard it was trying to work on my first novel when I was 18.

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