Write What You Know -- Or What You Can Research
by Marsha Ward
From the time I first studied creative writing, I've been told to write what I know. 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 small newspapers. I wrote hundreds of articles on a wide variety of subjects and people, but I knew little to nothing about those things or those people before I was assigned to write about them. The experience I gained during those years taught me about doing research, and finding out what you don’t know about from your own life experiences
Now I concentrate on writing novels set in the 19th Century. Did I live in the 19th Century? No. Does that mean I've broken that paramount rule of writing what I know?
Again, no. How’s that, you may ask? 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 with more years of life behind them are also 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!
In my newest novel, Spinster’s Folly, I wrote about abuse and manipulative behavior. Some of that I knew intimately from an experience our family had in years past. However, I still had to brush up on those topics, as well as doing heavy research on experiences my characters would encounter in the course of the story, like how to play poker. After my online research (hurray for the Internet!), and picking the minds of friends with poker knowledge, I went so far as to buy several books, including one on how to cheat at poker!
My next novel goes back in time from where I’ve set my first four Owen Family Saga books. This one will explore Rulon Owen’s life as an infantryman during the War Against Northern Aggression, as it was known in the Confederate States of America. That’s the American Civil War to you Yankees. I have acquired a knee-high stack of reference books on the topic, as well as documentary videos and several notebooks filled with my gleanings from Civil War sites online. Because many fans of those time are, well, fanatics, I have to get my facts right!
You do what you have to do to get the facts right and tell a good tale. The 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!"
More about Marsha Ward : Marsha Ward was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and currently lives in a pine forest in central Arizona. Marsha is an award-winning poet, freelance writer and editor whose published work includes four novels, two collaborative non-fiction books on writing, a collection of prose and poetry, and over 900 articles, columns, poems and short stories. Her novels, The Man from Shenandoah, Ride to Raton, Trail of Storms, and Spinster’s Folly have received rave reviews from both readers and reviewers.
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Author Blog: http://marshaward.blogspot.com
Character Blog: http://charactersinmarshashead.blogspot.com