Continuing my current blog theme of rules given to aspiring writers which should (on the right occasion) be taken with a pinch of salt, today I’m looking at the ‘rule’ that advises beginner writers to write what they know.
The trick to knowing when and how to break the rules is to know why that rule exists in the first place. There’s a very good reason for the ‘write what you know’ rule, and that is to save beginner writers from public humiliation.
You might be thinking “Ha! What does she know?! People write fantasy and sci-fi and crime all the time without actually living on a foreign planet or murdering someone, so how can writing things like that possibly embarrass me?” or “but I’m a stay-at-home mom and if I only wrote about that, then my books would be so boring”. I understand your objections - but please bear with me.
When we say ‘write what you know’ we’re not talking about only setting your books in the world of IT because your day job is in IT. Trust me, know one knows better than I do that we often start writing so we can escape our day jobs!
Nor am I’m saying, ‘only write about your own life experiences’. But I am advising that you don’t go too far out on a limb if you aren’t familiar with the tree. Because if you’re out on a particularly thin branch, your chances of falling are far greater.
When you start writing, you’re still focusing on getting the writing and publishing parts right. You’re learning to write believable characters, balance the internal and external conflict, and how to show rather than tell. Adding the pressure of huge amounts of research into that equation will just make your job even harder.
Of course, that’s not to say it’s impossible, just that it’s so much easier if you start with a ‘world’ you’re familiar with.
If your experience of hospitals is from watching Grey’s Anatomy, and that one time you had your tonsils out when you were ten, then writing a medical romance set in a hospital might not be the best way to start your career. Medical Romance readers read dozens (if not hundreds) of medical romances, and they know the difference between an MRI and a CT scan, so if you get these details wrong, you risk losing not only that reader but your reputation too.
You need to be honest with yourself: what do I know?
Think beyond your day job to everything else that makes you ‘you’. What you know is so much more than your formal education and your job title.
Here are some ideas of other things you might know:
What are your passions, and your hobbies? Are you an enthusiastic Formula One supporter who knows all the rules, and watches all the pre-race interviews? Do you devour every program on Animal Planet? Do you spend your weekends hiking, or rock climbing, or painting landscapes?
What countries have you travelled to? What cultures have you studied?
What do you enjoy reading? Do you have an entire shelf of books devoted to ancient Greek history (which you’ve actually read)? Have you read every major fantasy series ever published? Do you know what conventions readers of your chosen genre will expect?
What are your life experiences? Have you experienced a traumatic break-up, been bullied at school, battled with a serious illness or been in a car accident, lost a parent or a close friend? Then use these emotions in your books. Writing is the one career where hardships are an asset. Anyone whose life has been a walk in the park, without difficulties, is probably going to make a rather poor writer, because they won't have these emotions to tap into.
The next question you need to ask yourself is: what don’t I know?
If you’re setting your book in a foreign country, how well do you know what everyday life there is like? Don’t assume that watching loads of Hollywood movies has prepared you to write about American characters living in the US. For example, did you know that electric kettles are virtually non-existent in the US? If you don’t, you might want to re-think setting your book there. (And besides, what’s wrong with setting your book right here in gorgeous South Africa?)
If you’re setting your book in a particular industry (eg. on a film set) do you know how that industry works? I went to film school and worked for nearly two decades on various film sets, including feature films, television series, and more than a decade in television advertising, and there is still a LOT I don’t know about the business. So I’m willing to forgive a lot - especially if the book is set in another country, where there may be regulations and conventions I don’t know. But if I read a book set on a film set where the cameraman is doing the producer’s job, or the characters do something I know is blatantly false for a film set, then I will simply stop reading. And more than likely, I’ll never read another book you write again, because I won't trust you to get the next one right either. If you think I'm harsh, then you’re in for a rude awakening - because I’m a more forgiving reader than most!
Even worse, if you write a character with depression or cancer or autism and you get it wrong, you'll not only be caught out as writing what you don't know, but you might cause offense to readers who have up lose and personal experience with these.
So if your knowledge about the setting of your book, or about the experiences you’re putting your characters through, is hazy, then that rule of ‘write what you know’ applies to you, and you might want to seriously consider re-thinking what you’re writing.
However, it’s true that books would be very dull if we only ever wrote what we knew. So once you’ve mastered the technical aspects of writing, and your books have well rounded characters, solid plot structure and character arcs, and strong conflicts, I highly encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and write what you don’t know.
There’s one major caveat to this: If you write about something you’re unfamiliar with, you need to research, research, research. And a quick Google search isn’t going to cut it. Immerse yourself in that world. Check and double-check everything you write.
You can’t expect your editor to correct your research. Editors are only human and they don’t know everything. Their job is to improve your story and your writing, not to fact check your work. Editors trust their writers to do the research and to get the details right, and if you don’t, your book can go through multiple stages of edits, and get all the way to publication, without the errors being caught.
You know who will catch those errors? Readers. And if they catch you out, or think you’re a fraud, you’re not just losing one reader – it’s your entire reputation on the line. Would you want to throw away all the hard work you put into writing your novel because you got the details wrong?
Even worse, readers can be merciless. Just go have a look on Goodreads if you want to see how brutal readers can be. Trust me, if you don’t want to have that novel you laboured over for months and months torn to shreds in public, stick with what you know.
You have no idea where your reader has travelled or what life experiences they’ve had. There’s a very good chance some of your readers will know that world pretty well – probably better than you do. If you set your book in Italy, you can be guaranteed that the complete strangers who choose to read your book are doing so because they’ve been to Italy or are passionate about the place. So if you haven’t actually been to Italy, you need to be damned sure you’ve done your homework.
When that moment comes when you tentatively step across the boundary of your comfort zone to write something that breaks the ‘write what you know’ rule, what can you do to ensure your book is as authentic as it can be?
Check your facts. No matter how small the detail, check the information against reliable sources. In Not a Fairy Tale, my heroine Nina had lived through Hurricane Katrina 10 years before the book began. I spent an entire day reading firsthand accounts, and watching documentaries and interviews with survivors. The result was only a few lines in my book, but that was a day well spent. Horrifying and moving as it was to learn about what it was like for those caught in the midst of Katrina, that research helped me make that moment in the book credible.
Interview people who’ve actually done it. I will never climb Kilimanjaro. It’s not my kind of thing, and I have plenty of other things on my bucket list ahead of mountain climbing. But if I wanted to write a character who is a mountain climber, I will find someone who has done it, and interrogate them until I have enough real anecdotes and information to make my character believable. Even better, I'll get them to read the scene/s once I've written them for feedback on the authenticity of what I’ve written.
Find a beta reader who experienced it firsthand. If your character is of a different culture to you, find someone from that culture to beta read your book. If your book is set on a film set, try to find someone who has spent time on a film set to beta read your book. They will hopefully catch anything factually incorrect before your book reaches publication.
Sensitivity Readers. Especially if you are writing about someone from a marginalized group, or someone who has experienced a trauma such as rape or war, or someone who lives with a disability or mental health issue like depression, then you need to ensure you handle their experiences authentically and with sensitivity. Try to find someone from that marginalized group or someone who has firsthand experience to ensure that you have handled the subject sensitively.
Find an editor who knows your setting or genre. If you’re hiring an editor in order to self-publish, ensure that your editor knows the conventions of your genre. That editor can tell you whether your readers are likely to accept and understand what you’ve written, or not. Even if you are submitting to traditional publishers, try to find yourself an editor who has strengths where you have weaknesses. If you’ve set your book in England, but never been there, then an English editor will help catch any details that are incongruent.
Can you think of any other ways to get away with breaking the ‘write what you know’ rule? Do you write what you know, or do you write to escape what you know? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.