Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Writing What You Know

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!"


Tristi Pinkston said...

Look at that lovely young lady!! :)

You're still a lovely young lady, Marsha!

Marsha Ward said...

LOL! I love that picture. I had it taken on my mission, and it shows the Hispanic influence of the region, with my long hair drawn into a coil at the nape of my neck. IIRC, my Chilean companion dressed my hair. Thank you, Malena!

Tamra Norton said...

Yes--what a wonderful picture and wonderful advice!

Marcia Mickelson said...

Yes, what a very nice picture. What a great blog. Sometimes, I try to write what I know and then I figure out it isn't very much!

Marsha Ward said...

Thanks, Tami and Marcia.

Marcia, just remember to do the research on what you want or need to know so you can write about it. After all, that's what we're here on earth for--to gain knowledge, whether we're writers or not!