Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Argument for Writing What You Know




By Eleanor Shelton












Writing and food are two of my favorite things. Many years ago, I decided to combine them and become a food writer. I pitched a few food-related articles to the local daily paper where I used to live, lo and behold, I became a food writer, just like that. 







My articles were well written and on time. My editor was happy. Nobody was the wiser that I really had no culinary background. Then I interviewed a cookbook author, and when she talked about growing garlic I said, “oh, garlic is grown in the United States?” Apparently, I had the notion that garlic only came from Italy. 



In case, you too were wondering.



The cookbook author paused, not knowing how to proceed with someone who was obviously so unqualified. It was a painful lesson for me. I was found out. 



Write what you know, at least a little bit.




I am the last person to suggest any fiction writer stick entirely with what they have an intimate experience. If that were the case, I’d write about an educated, middle-aged, friendly white woman living in suburbia…blek. 



No, what I’m suggesting (unless you write sci/fi or fantasy in which case you are making up every single detail), is that you use what you have some familiarity with and use it as a jumping off point. If you are a plumber, make one of your characters a plumber or have plumbing issues. 


If you’ve spent many weeks on a cruise ship, you may want to set your novels on Queen Elizabeth II. (Pretty certain one of our colleagues wrote this book, or two).


Maybe we should write what we emotionally know? We’ve all felt heartache, fear, abandonment, (notice there isn’t happiness, joy, or invincibility because those emotions tend not to make compelling stories). 


Perhaps we struggle with mental or physical issues. Chances are we’ve all longed for something or even gone to the next level of stealing it. That’s where great stories begin. Do you know these things? Of course, you do! 


I have a friend who is determined to write a novel set in Afghanistan. She’s never been there and isn’t planning to go. But she has a friend whose Afghani. Is that enough? It feels a little dicey to me. If writers stuck to what we knew, we would have missed out on some of the most amazing pieces of literature ever written. 



But did Virginia Wolff spend time as a young woman near a lighthouse? Yes, she did. Did Stephen King spend a night in an almost deserted hotel? Yup. And Earnest Hemingway spent years by the sea and in Europe witnessing war. 


All I’m saying is that writing is hard enough. We imagine characters, settings, plots with twists, and compelling dialogue. Why not take advantage of our expertise, in something, anything, to use as a foundation, to let some details shine, and to allow our writing muscles focus on the magic of our artistry.   

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