Write What You Know (Nothing About)

As I work through the early stages of a contracted novel, I never know what craziness is going to pop out of my head and land with a big, juicy *ker-splattt!* inside the story. Generally, each book's good for one major topic about which I know almost nothing. In one historical, it turned out to be the tragic explosion of the Civil War-era steamboat, The Sultana, which took the lives of 1700, mostly half-starved Union POWs from Confederate prison camps. Mymost recent romantic suspense explored both glider flight and fine art photography.

Every one of these topics scared the snot out of me and resurrected the ghost of that hoariest bit of writing adivice: Write What You Know. So with much trepidation (and visions of angry reader letters calling me on my ignorance), I set out to learn everything I could about each topic...

And made a wonderful discovery. I love research, love learning, adore experiencing new things. I find the new "expertise" I've picked up along the way to be one of the most rewarding facets of the writing life. Sure, it can be taken too far, sucking the research junkie into an addiction so strong, no actual writing ever takes place. Or it can bog down a manuscript, if the author feels the need to pour every crumb of newly-discovered knowledge into her plot. (Yawn!) But for the most part, the excitement the writer feels in the discovery adds freshness to the story. It can even hook readers on newly-found enthusiasms.

So with that in mind, I'm forging ahead with a plot containing a frightening new element, one about which I know zero. But you can bet that won't be true by the time I finish this book. (For one thing, my husband is already planning a research road trip for the two of us. Yea!)

So do you agree with me that "Write What You Know" should be changed to "Write What You Want to Learn"? And what's the most interesting research you've ever done for writing?


Suzan Harden said…
My favorite piece of writing advice?

"Should you write what you know? No, you should write what you can imagine." - Walter Dean Myers, 2005 Texas Book Festival

And a little research never hurt. I found out some really cool stuff along the way.
Great advice from Myers! Thanks for sharing!
Joni Rodgers said…
Something you and I have in common, Colleen, is our unabashed love of research. Interesting reading, real life adventures, and a buffet of unexpected conversations always ensue.

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