Thursday, January 26, 2012

What Does "Write What You Know" Really Mean?

I got thinking today about how writers are always told to "Write What You Know". It doesn't make a lot of sense sometimes. What we know can be very limited. We didn't live 200 years ago, or even 60 years ago (most of us anyway) so how can we really KNOW that time period? And yet historical fiction is HUGE. Neither can we know what is to come in the future, but Sci Fi/Futuristic flourishes. I'm pretty sure I'm not familiar with sailing on a yacht on the Med or what it's like to investigate a murder (or kill someone either). Let's face it, the purpose of fiction is to take us on an adventure away from what we know.

And as writers, that's what research and imagination are for.

So what does write what you know really mean?

I've been thinking a lot about the term "core story" lately. Your core story isn't about writing the same plot over and over. My core story has little to do with ranchers and cowboys. Rather, ranchers and cowboys tend to be a natural fit with my core story (and is probably why the first story I sold to Harlequin after years of submitting was a western).

Your core story is bound up in theme and characters.

I didn't get this for a while, not until I had several books under my belt. Let's face it - we're all learning as we go along. There are themes that run through all my stories, and here are a few: finding a place to belong - home is where the heart is. Forgiveness, acceptance, and my heroines tend to want to be seen. They want to know that someone is willing to fight for them, to put them first, to value them. It sounds a little all about ME, doesn't it? But my heroines are also nurturers and caregivers. They're only asking their due, I think. They want a partner.

My heroes are often on the tortured or wounded side of things. They are also strong, hard working, honourable men (you can see how the ranchers and cowboys are a natural fit, as well as the odd soldier thrown in now and again). 

Hard working men, nurturing women. Yes, there's a reason why I write western set and small town stories.

And that's where I write what I know. I'm a farm girl who loves open spaces, harvest time, and a little dirt on her boots on occasion. I'm a nurturer. I'm also a woman who wants to be valued, seen, and appreciated (don't we all?). As much as I understand and enjoy reading and watching stories about other types of characters, that's not my core story when it comes to writing.

I adore chick flicks, for example. I enjoy police procedurals, my favourite subgenre to read is Regency, and I simply adore adaptations of classic literature and miniseries (Downton Abbey, Austen adaptations anyone?).  But when push comes to shove, it's different when I'm at the keyboard with my fingers on the keys.

For example, in my last book, the heroine wasn't working. I didn't like her a lot. I had solid motivation, real reasons why she acted the way she did. In the hands of another writer, she could have been the woman I initially made her out to be. But in MY hands, she just came across as abrasive and cold.  I had written a heroine who was too departed from my core story, and it showed. I dug a little deeper, adjusted some motivations, and suddenly I was liking her a lot better.

I needed to write what I knew.

So take a little time to think about your core story, the  types of characters you gravitate to and the common themes that seem to run through all your stories. Once you've got it, you can use that strength to really craft strong, emotionally satisfying stories.


  1. Donna, I don't completely get that advice. Kind of like when my art teacher used to tell me to draw what I see, not what I know to be true.

    I 'know' that I have fantastic parents. Seriously fabulous parents. Therefore you'd think that my characters would have fantastic parents as well.

    I've noticed a pattern.

    Most of my characters' parents are out of the picture (car crash, plane crash, heart attack...the list goes on and on.) So in that aspect of my fiction writing, I don't really follow "the rule."

    In my nonfiction, however, I went with exactly what I know. Helping authors build careers, promote their works, build a brand. So that's I wrote about. In that case, I think it's kind of important to stick to the rule. :)

  2. I do the same thing with parents too, Ally. I punt them out of the way!

    But if you look at your stories, what themes are there? What sorts of characters do you normally write? That's your core story.

    If you look at historicals, chick lit, Presents....the writers probably don't inhabit those worlds, but there are universal emotions they'd tap into for their characters. THAT'S what you know. Your core story is what's underneath all the trappings. What qualities your characters possess, what they tend to want/need (goals) and their fears (conflict) are what are going to form your core story.

    I bet if you look at several stories by the same author, you can find common threads. :-)

  3. I do it too, I've discovered. My heroines are almost all *healing* from various traumas in one way or another: physically, emotionally. And the heroes are also strong, caring nurturers (to paint all of them with a rather large brush!). You'd almost think I'd been in an abusive relationship, or somethin'... :P