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Write what you know . . .

confused lookHow many times have you heard that piece of advice? A lot, right? It’s a simple statement, pretty easy to understand . . . after all, we wouldn’t want to write what we don’t know. But that oft-repeated advice almost stopped me from ever attempting to write a book. Why? Because I didn’t think I knew anything of interest that could ever provide material for a book.

I know you’re chuckling. I can see your amusement. But it’s true. At the time, I was 49 years old, and had had a secret desire to write a book since I was a kid hiding behind the big chair in the corner of living room so my mother wouldn’t see me reading again. (My mother believed children needed fresh air and exercise more than they needed the worlds they found in books.) But I digress . . .

So there I was, the manager of the Classified Advertising Department of a small community newspaper, and I was bored silly. My job held no challenge anymore, and it was all I could do to stay awake while there. It was January of 1986 and the new semester at Houston Community College was just beginning. So I did something I’d long thought about doing – I signed up for a creative writing course.

I loved the course and was lucky to have a terrific teacher. Still, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing there, because that little voice in my head – the one we all have – the one that tells us we can’t do something and why are we even trying – kept reminding me that I really didn’t know about anything that would make an interesting story. So even though the course was fun and I was having a good time writing little essays and short stories and doing the writing exercises, I was afraid my secret goal of becoming a novelist was unrealistic.

Then, in leafing through one of the books the instructor had, I discovered there was an organization that had been founded in Houston called Romance Writers of America. This intrigued me, because as a teen I had devoured the romance section in the library. Curious about RWA, I did some research and discovered that the genre was enormously popular. Suddenly I was excited. Here was something I did know. Anyone who has ever fallen in love knows about romance and relationships. And as far as the plot was concerned, I’d always had a vivid imagination.

But I had to be sure this was the right area for me. I had to see what current romance novels were like. Maybe I wouldn’t even like them anymore. So I went to a used bookstore and loaded up on them. I probably read 20 category romances over the next few weeks and the more I read, the more I knew I’d found my niche.

See, the problem I’d had initially was that for years I had been reading mostly thrillers, mysteries, police procedurals, suspense (my husband and I were hooked on the novels of Ed McBain and John D. MacDonald) and women in jeopardy ala Mary Higgins Clark. But I didn’t know anything about writing that type of book. I wasn’t a lawyer or a cop. I had no background or knowledge that would enable me to write credibly in that genre.

Why am I telling you all this? To show you that “write what you know” can mean different things to different people. What you know can be about life experiences you’ve had or areas of life that interest you. What you know can be a passion in your life, something that can provide the background of your story. What you know can be your professional background. Or what you know can be your natural empathy and understanding of human nature, your ability to put yourself in someone else’s place and know exactly how a person would act in a given situation.

And even if you don’t “know” everything about your subject, you can educate yourself. You can learn. I doubt Mary Higgins Clark has ever faced the situations she’s written about, but she has a great imagination, and she seeks professional help with her research.

We all know about life. We all know about emotions. We all know what intrigues and excites us when we read. That’s a great starting point.

So get busy.

And write what you know. 🙂


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