As fiction writers, we have all likely heard, at one time or another, the adage, “Write What You Know”. Seems pretty straightforward. A simple concept in a world filled with the ambiguous and esoteric. And yet, this past Thursday, when my mother called me to deliver the news of my aunt’s passing, I realized that the “Write What You Know” adage is not quite as straightforward as I had imagined.
When I really starting pondering the expression, I had my doubts that the authors who had stories out there about . . . oh, take for example, Navy SEALs, had actually ever been a Navy SEAL. I was equally dubious about the novels with lumberjacks, ranchers, jewel thieves, banker robbers, first responders, and on and on and on.
Oh sure, some authors might have family members who are firefighters, or who might have served in the military or on the police force, or who might have even once been to a dude ranch one summer decades ago, but my guess is most of these authors got the information used in their books from research.
I feel equally sure that a similar percentage of authors who write about exotic locations have never actually been to the places they bring alive on the page. How many people do you know have actually been to the Yukon or to an Amazonian rain forest? What about the Far East or Antarctica? Again, research is what makes those places come alive for the reader.
So what, then, does the phrase “Write What You Know” really mean?
Most Romance writers pen stories that are character driven rather than plot driven. I am no exception. So, like a true student of fiction writing, when my mother called me to say that my aunt had died just that afternoon, I catalogued how I felt inside upon hearing the news. I also made note of how I responded viscerally to the family loss.
My goal for doing so was to inspire me so that when I put words on the page, I could remember those feeling and responses. By doing this, my hope was that my character, who is experiencing her own personal loss, would react in such a way that would evoke a deep emotional response from the reader. A reader who now thinks to the themselves, “Yeah, I know exactly how she feels because I experienced something similar myself.”
Emotion is something we all know about. Happiness, sadness, loneliness, hatred. In some form or another, for one reason or another, we’ve all experienced the gambit of human emotions. As an author who desires to tap into those emotions, to make readers bond with our characters so that they will come back for more, situations that churn up emotional responses is the key.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the hero is a Navy SEAL or an Accountant. It doesn’t matter if the heroine lives in Yukon or Houston, Texas. What does matter is that the life experiences these two fictional people traverse mirrors what real people go through. Death of family member, the birth of a grandchild, graduation, marriage. Even smaller life issues: traffic jams, waiting and waiting and waiting in a doctor’s office, having to make a trip to the DMV.
A Navy SEAL on special assignment in the Yukon might be a hot career in an exotic location, but the feelings and emotions felt by characters . . . well, that’s the part we can all relate to. It’s part of the human experience. The trick is getting that emotion on the page.
Lorinda Peake wrote her first ditty when she was ten on an English seashore while visiting her British grandmother. From then on, her family either acted in or were treated to plays, skits, or commercial spoofs. In school, she wrote poetry, fables and short stories.
Years later, she tossed down a particularly bad novel and thought, “I could do at least that well.” She’s been pursuing the elusive published novel ever since. Recently, she joined a group of fellow writers who decided to cajole, bully, encourage, and sometimes baby each other along towards the publishing goal by setting real and measurable writing objectives with “motivational” consequences for non-attainment.
Lorinda loves a good romance – all the more if it is wrapped in a great fantasy setting. She lives on the Texas Gulf Coast with her husband of 34 years.