Monday, October 5, 2015

Whatever you do, please make sure you write what you don't know

Is there a piece of conventional writing advice you take serious exception to?

by Meredith Cole

For every rule, there is an exception to that rule. But rules are useful for beginning writers. They're kind of like the bumpers they give you at the bowling alley when you're a kid. Writing feels so intimidating when you're starting out, it's helpful to have someone say don't go over here until you're ready, and you'll be more successful (i.e., will finish your story) if you figure out what you're going to do before you start.

But I do take exception to one rule: Write what you know. People throw this one around quite liberally and I think it's mostly bunk. Writer's lives are often quite mundane. We hunch over a computer most of the day until someone tells us we really must eat or go outside. We read books. We walk around muttering to ourselves. Of course, we might have had more interesting lives before we became writers--but maybe not.  You need to be pretty disciplined to write. Unstable people don't often finish novels (there are of course many exceptions to this rule. But maybe they weren't as undisciplined or unstable as we thought?). And disciplined and consistent people can be, sadly, a little dull.

If I took the write what you know literally, I would have to ask why should I try to write mysteries. I've never killed anyone. I've never found a body. So how do I know what to do?

A better interpretation of this rule, and one I can live with, is to write your truth about the world. Don't copy anyone else. Experience life fully and write what you feel and know. Describe everything as accurately and specifically and develop your own voice. And when you need to write about killing someone, do some research and talk to professionals who know all about it. Please do not try it at home.

I'm off to Bouchercon this weekend in Raleigh, and I'm looking forward to seeing all the Criminal Minds (past and present) who are coming this year! I'm a panel called "Does the character's profession shape the sleuthing?" on Sunday at 8:30 AM in State AB with Rosemary Harris, Sasscer Hill, and Sandra Brannan. Simon Wood will be our moderator. Hope to see you there!


Triss said...

I"m with you on this, Meredith. Writers don't often live such interesting lives. I don't know where I saw it first, but I like "write what you want to know."

One I disagree with is, "don't write about the weather." Ha. I once talked about this with terrific writer, Julia Spencer-Fleming. We both grew up with harsh winters, places where the weather can kill you. Not write about it? Read one of her books. Weather becomes an important player.

Paul D. Marks said...

Totally agree with you, Meredith. Even if one lives the Hemingway lifestyle you still can't experience everything, so we have to take what we do know, research the rest and infuse it with, as you say, "to write your truth about the world. Don't copy anyone else. Experience life fully and write what you feel and know." Well said.

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks Triss! I totally agree with you about the weather... It's such a big character in people's lives -- both cold and heat -- that it's a shame to ignore it.

Susan C Shea said...

Agree about the externals that we know. But I buy the argument that we all deal with fear, grief, fury, and despair at some points in our lives and that "knowing" is at least as important as having sunk your kitchen knife into the stomach of an intruder...ugh.
Good post as usual!