…Nor Do I Play One On TV

but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Today I want to talk about expert knowledge. This take on the “write what you know” trope is inspired by a recent post from Larry Brooks, whose brain you know I admire greatly. In it, he observes how the biggest name authors, the ones we all recognize, even if we never read their genre, have taken their expert knowledge from a previous career path or life experience and use that to write books packed with inside information and perspective, to create a story that no one else could have written.

As a young writer, it can be frustrating to read an author like that, to feel that you have it in you to tell that kind of a story. The writing inspires you, and you start to spin your own genre-similar tale in your head. You love the idea. It would make a great book–if only you could get the experience as a fighter pilot to fill in the gaps. Sadly, watching Top Gun a dozen times in one weekend doesn’t seem to make that happen, now you’ve got “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” stuck in your head, and you’re seriously bummed because you’re pretty sure there’s no cooler name than Maverick, but it’s already been used, so screw this whole thing.

One thing Larry says:

There’s nothing wrong with a housewife from Wisconsin setting out to write a sexy novel about a drug dealer operating out of Havana.  Research is a beautiful thing.  But the truth is, the real ex-Havana crack dealer writing the same story already has a leg up on her, and no research in the world can supplant the vicereral, minutea-bound credibility of someone who knows.

This, by the way, reminds me of a writer I know who was drawn to a particular kind of story that she hadn’t lived, and got so wound up in perfectionist research that she was letting the minutia run the story. Her thinking was much more about what would happen next according to real procedure in the real world, and not so much about telling a story and using the research to color it and fill in the blanks.

Anyways, a lot of us are writers because we love to read, and a lot of us love to read because we love the escapist fantasy of it. Because we’re not ex-FBI agents, nor did we stay at the Holiday Inn Express last night. So while Larry’s talking about these big-name authors having a leg up because they’ve been LA crime reporters, forensic techs, spies, pilots, etc., he also says:

Sure, it’s fiction, we get that.  But you have to bring it to life, and life is about truth.  And everybody has lived a truth worth telling.

This is what I believe. And you know who really inspires me in this regard?

La Nora.

That’s Nora Roberts. Now, you don’t have to be a fan, you don’t have to like her books. But you can probably bring yourself to admit that she’s done mighty fine for herself as a writer. If you go back and read Larry’s post, and you read about the big-name authors who have “lived their way in” to their type of story…I think La Nora probably smokes them all in terms of fame and earnings. (I don’t have to be right about that and don’t much care. It’s enough to say she’s at least on par for the sake of argument.)

So what’s her expert knowledge? The story goes–and I read it in The Official Nora Roberts Companion which has a lot of interesting stuff in it–that Nora started writing in 1979 when she was snowed in with her two boys and turned to writing a novel in a spiral notebook in an effort to save her sanity. The story paints a picture some of us–ahem–can relate to. It’s a picture of family, together, sometimes driving each other nuts.

The concept of family plays a huge role in her work. Whether it’s the family you were born into or the people you choose, the family themes, plots, and subplots in her works are part of what make them different from a lot of what’s out there, and part of what helps readers relate to the work, draws them in, and contributes to her popularity. There’s a very strong component in many of her works, a connection between characters that’s almost like ownership. Whether it’s a relationship between a hero and heroine, a relationship between brothers, or the relationship between a cop and the victims she wants justice for, there’s a sense that this person is mine, mine to care for, mine to protect, mine to stand with.

I think that if you look back at what Nora chooses to reveal in her origin story, the story of a harried mother of two young boys, it’s pretty obvious where at least part of that is coming from.

She has never been, to my knowledge, a spy, a pilot, an FBI agent, a cop, a cowboy, or a vampire. Part of what amazes me about Nora, and part of why she’s managed to put out well over 100 novels, is because it seems like she can write about anyone she wants. The research is there, the feel of it, but those professions–and their attendant minutia–aren’t what her stories are about. They’re about relationships, not just romantic relationships, but relationships of all kinds. They’re about family, something nearly everyone has or at least longs for, something to which everyone can relate.

So you’re just a high school student, or a retail clerk, or a server at Applebee’s, or you’re the night person on the desk at the Holiday Inn Express, so what? Something in your brain, in the way you think, makes you so different that you’re absolutely fascinating. If you weren’t fascinating, you’d never have started writing because you’d bore the crap out of yourself. And you’re human; you’ve got something that makes you just like me. That’s why I’m going to connect with what you write and have to read every book you put out.

I think that’s the magic. If you’re Grisham, you can write about all the little lawyery details we don’t know about, and that, in and of itself is interesting, especially since we get it in a gripping tale instead of having to sit through law school. If you’re not, then maybe your tales will have lawyery flavoring and a dash of artificial attorney color #5, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about something that only you bring to it out of your experience.

At least, this is what I understand about me: I can write about things I know in an academic sense, but I can write passionately about things I’ve felt my way through. And when I write with passion, it’s a whole other level.

So, expert on all things youish, what parts of your own unique journey are you using for your current work-in-progress?


Filed under writing

30 responses to “…Nor Do I Play One On TV

  1. Peter

    My life has been pretty boring, except for my 8 year stint in the Air Force, though I have no desire to write about that. It’s all very boring to me because I went through it. Currently I’m working on a novel that centers around a cult, though I’ve never been in one, so who knows how that’ll turn out? Great post. This is actually something that’s been in the back of my mind for a while now.

    • I think being in the military (or in some way attached to it) can tweak your perspective, even if you don’t choose to write about that. For example, think of the new cuss words and fabulous phrases I learned as a Marine Corps bride. It all contributes to the uniqueness of the work that only you can produce. Thanks for the comment, Peter, it’s always nice to see you.

  2. Given that that other writer was ME I will wave my hand and say GUILTY. My addiction to the FBI procedural and the fact that I do actually find the research fascinating, was pretty crippling. One of these days I’ll go back to that book. Maybe. It had good bones… Anyway, I think this really hits at the heart of the truth behind the “write what you know” trope. It’s so easy to misinterpret. And I think la Nora was a great example. That thread of family is absolutely one that keeps me coming back to her, book after book, no matter whether she’s writing contemporary, suspense, or paranormal. So I think it is absolutely worth taking the time to figure out what that thread is or can be in our own work, then figuring out how to enhance it.

    Very thought provoking, Pot!

    • I thought briefly about asking you, but then decided to leave it to you to out yourself. And you know the varying ways to interpret “write what you know” drive me up a freakin’ wall. I think it’s done more harm than good out there.

  3. Claire

    I love this post, Susan! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. For a long time, I didn’t like the adage “Write what you know,” because…jeez, what do I know? I’m just a recently-graduated master’s student who’s never lived more than 30-ish miles from where I was born. That’s…not very interesting.

    But you said it exactly right in this post. It’s easy to misconstrue the meaning of “Write what you know” to mean that you can only write about lawyers, pilots, heroes, etc., if you’ve actually lived those experiences. But what “Write what you know” really means is just infusing your stories with things like the heartbreak you felt in your first unrequited love. The grief you experienced when a loved one died. The frustration you felt as you tried to achieve an impossible thing other people didn’t think you’d be able to achieve.

    Using these universal feelings and experiences to enhance your stories, to make them that much more real, allows readers to relate to you, to care about you and you writing. I suppose it’s really more “Write what you’ve known.”

    To answer your question, I put a lot of myself into my MCs. Honestly, what writer doesn’t? But as that recently-graduated master’s student who’s never lived farther than 30ish miles from where I was born, as the recovering perfectionist, as the person who doesn’t know what’s coming next in her life, I love using those exact frustrations to color the nuances of my characters. It’s like dissecting myself and using all the little pinned organs to bring my very own collection of Frankenstein’s monsters to life. ;D

  4. Pingback: More on Writing What You Know | Kait Nolan

  5. I remember reading something on the “Write What You Know” subject by someone whose name I no longer recall (sorry, whoever you are). She (I’m pretty sure it was a woman) said that even if you have never encountered a gunman down a dark alleyway at 2am in Tokyo, you probably do know about fear. At some point in your life you have probably experienced that fight/flight dilemma. Writing about what you know doesn’t necessarily have to be facts – it’s probably more important when applied to emotions. Facts only matter when it’s a location or something like official procedures. Emotions will always matter – all your characters have emotions. Even the bunnies in Watership Down had emotions. That was why we bothered reading about them. But I very much doubt that Richard Adams turned into a rabbit and spent a few months digging burrows and fighting other rabbits in order to gain material for his book.

  6. Wow!

    And to think I just told my son (9 yrs old -going on 39) for his first 4-H speech to talk about what he knows. So he did his speech about a boy in his class…..himself! 😀
    ……and he won 1st place!

    So yes, it is about writing about what you know, your experiences and how you reacted to them and using those feelings with your characters. I don’t write books myself (wish I had the patience for them) but I love to read them. And books that can relate in some way to the reader are the best ones. If you feel like you can relate to the characters in some way then you are drawn into the story and become a part of it. I like to read books that when I am so into them people around me have to call my name out several times before I realize that they are talking to me. It’s almost as if someone is having to grasp my arm (or leg, or hair, etc) to pull me back into reality.

    Great post, Susan!

    • Anya, congratulations to your son! Imagine having the opportunity to learn, at that age, what takes many of us a lot longer: reciting a bunch of facts, no matter how well-researched or interesting, doesn’t move people as much as the power of personality and passion that you can only put into things you feel in some way.

  7. You’re timing is impeccable. The scene I’m working on RIGHT now was giving me problems because I was focusing way too much on the technical. It’s not a major part of the story, but there I was wanting to make sure I got everything right. Now I’m just going to make the scene look nice and move on to what’s really important; my characters and what they’re going through.

  8. I can only repeat what Anne said. I came across an article in writer’s digest a few months ago, forget who wrote it, and it was pretty much along the same lines. Take the emotions from your experiences and write from that. It made a lot more sense to me. Nora is my all time favorite. I discovered her books when I first started writing and she blew me away. I’ve read everything she has written.

    • Even I wrote this same post with different examples a few years ago. But I figure no one would notice–except may Kait.

      I’ve loved reading some of Nora’s early work, like Once More With Feeling, and then some of the newer stuff, like what she accomplished in the first books of the -In Death series, to see how she grew and changed over time.

  9. I love this! And you’re right, it’s more about bringing your perspective into the story. Like LaNora, my stories often center around relationships and family. (Hee! You like how I just put myself into the same class as Nora Roberts? *ahem* Anyway…) I can do that, I can get the importance of those relationships onto the page.

    Besides, since my heroine is an ex-con-artist, I don’t think I really want that on my resume of past experience. 😉

  10. I completely agree with you. I highly doubt Stephen King has been chased by a killer clown or lived in a haunted hotel. But that doesn’t mean that something inside him wrote those stories. Very thought provoking post!

  11. Um, I like writing loves scenes. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

  12. jesswords10

    I love this post! It’s so true, but I like how you dug into taking it beyond just experience to demonstrate how interests, language, excitements can all play a role. I really enjoyed your post and how it made so many people think. I’m giving my main character an interest in ghosts and the paranormal, which is a belief of mine, so I guess that’s how I’m “writing what I know.”

  13. What a great post, Susan! I know I can always draw on the emotions in my life for certain scenes in my novels, but there’s also the setting… I’m such a stickler for accuracy in historical novels that I strive to make mine as accurate and well-informed as possible, always trying for that fine line between infusing the novel with a sense of place and time without dowsing the reader with a bucketful of info. Garn! I wish I’d get a story idea in a contemporary setting someday… Or maybe not – I do love those historicals!

    • In historical romance, don’t they now have sort of subcategories for well researched historicals that really try to portray the period accurately, and novels that are merely washed with a little period color? I don’t know, it’s not a genre I read now, but it seems like I remember reading something like that, and it seems like there’s definitely a readership out there who wants you to get it right. So rock on.

  14. Pingback: THIS . . . is the ROW80 Update | Come Out and Play

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