by Marsha Ward
From the time I first studied creative writing, I've been told to write what I know. If you're a writer, you have, too. What does that mean?
First, let me give you some of my background. For several years, I wrote feature and news stories for a series of LDS newspapers. I wrote on a wide variety of subjects and people. Now, I am concentrating on my fiction, writing novels set in the 19th Century.
What did I know about the people and subjects I wrote about for the LDS papers? Nothing. Did I live in the 19th Century? No. Oops! Does that mean I've broken that paramount rule of writing what I know?
Again, no. You may ask, what are you talking about? Here's the explanation: Writing students of school age are advised to write what they know because they haven't lived very long. They only know what they have experienced first hand, so that is all they can call upon. Writing students of more years of life are advised to write what they know, but there is the unspoken understanding that this includes what they can find out about through research, as well as the life experiences they have as background.
I had to interview, investigate, study and research my news subjects. That made me an "expert," at least for the moment, on that topic or person. I knew what I was writing about.
Similarly, although I didn't live through the tumultuous events of the 19th Century, I did read 150 books for research before I wrote my novel, The Man from Shenandoah. Now my readers ask if I was raised on a farm, because my knowledge of the tools and procedures seems to be so intimate. Research made me an "expert" on the things I neeced to know to write the book. I'm not as sure what to say about the readers who congratulate me on my ability to get inside the mind of my male characters. Maybe being a tomboy in my childhood and youth helped me "know" what to write in that area!
Next time someone tells you to "write what you know," take the counsel with a grain of salt, remembering that unspoken addition to the suggestion: "...or what you can find out about!"