Write What You Know, featuring Kevin Brennan, and Mini Book Reviews (plus, Learning from Books!)

Author Kevin Brennan is visiting today!

Write What You Everybody Knows

A few months ago I read an item in the New York Times called "Should We Write What We Know?" by Ben Yagoda. It stuck in my head, not because of the too-cute anagrams for Write What You Know that Yagoda came up with ("Write What You Wonk", "Write What You Own", "'K?", and "We Throw a Wink T' You") but because of the superficial wisdom of the whole idea. This is probably the most quoted and least useable piece of writing advice you'll ever hear, yet there are very few writers, fiction writers anyway, who abide by it.

(I'm not much of a fan of "Show Don't Tell" either, by the way, since you can pick up just about any respected novel and point out all the Tells. It's a matter of finesse. If you can finesse breaking a rule, then I say break it to your heart's content!)

To me, Write What You Know is a restriction, a boundary. It's a little like the saying, Place is destiny, which is one of the more depressing thoughts you can have if you're born in, say, Gaza, or Cleveland. If we are limited literally to writing about the things we know, then the best of us have only a couple of decent novels in us before we run out of material. (I guess Faulkner is the exception that proves the rule...) Of course, we can venture out and learn things and have new experiences, but the core of what we really know is probably wrapped up in our childhood lives, our families, our personal experiences, and our professions. We extrapolate from all of them.

On the other hand, when a writer tries to write about something she has no direct experience of but has learned from books or experts, it often shows in the writing. Authenticity is a key ingredient in novels -- a little ironic, since they're entirely made up. But it's a fact. If a fantasy set in some mythical kingdom is peopled with characters who don't ring true on some level, it won't succeed in drawing in the reader. And if a book about a CIA operation in Afghanistan seems cut and pasted out of news articles and memoirs, no reader will take it seriously enough even to be entertained by it.

So the writer is left with quite a dilemma.

In my new novel, Yesterday Road, I write about a number of things I have little or no direct experience with, but I hope that I've done enough research (and hidden it well enough) that most readers will enjoy the story and characters and find authenticity in them. I also use locations I've never been to and that certainly aren't real in the sense of places you can visit. They serve a purpose in the narrative, yet they seem real. Only people who actually live there might say, "It's not like that at all" -- just as people can rightly say that New York is nothing like it's depicted in "Sex And The City."

Write What You Know is probably best interpreted on a more figurative level. Instead of taking it to mean that you can only write about the world of your own experience, peel it apart and give yourself permission to infiltrate the humanity of your characters, whatever their occupations or histories.

For instance, I'm working on a book with a first-person female protagonist who's a doctor. I'm not a woman or a doctor, but I think I know exactly where she's coming from and I can hear her voice as I write her. Am I asking for trouble? I guess we'll find out, but my approach to her is through her personhood, her motives, her relationships. A capable writer ought to be able to work with these elements and create something real and authentic.

Yagoda's ultimate conclusion on the matter is probably more apt than I wanted to give it credit for. "We Throw a Wink T' You", as twee as it comes across, introduces the reader who will share the book with you. If you can keep her in mind, if you can take her seriously and keep from insulting her intelligence, and if you remember that she wants to like what you're offering, you'll probably find that you can depart from what you know and write not just from experience but also from sincerity.

Yesterday Road is available at:

Also available at iTunes via your iPhone, iPad, or Mac.

Kevin's little short story collection, Our Children Are Not Our Children, is also available at the above outlets. His first novel, Parts Unknown (William Morrow/HarpCollins), is available at his blog.

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Thanks for visiting the blog today, Kevin!

I think that's a great way of looking at 'write what you know'. I love the idea of peeling apart experiences and characters to get at the hearts of them. It reminds me of the way Diana Gabaldon talks about 'onion' characters (as opposed to mushrooms and hard nuts).

Meanwhile, I'm taking a leaf out of Zan Marie's book and featuring mini reviews today!

Take Me Home for Christmas by Brenda Novak
Christmas is a time for remembering.
Too bad not all memories are pleasant! Everyone in Whiskey Creek remembers Sophia DeBussi as the town's Mean Girl. Especially Ted Dixon, whose love she once scorned.
But Sophia has paid the price for her youthful transgressions. The man she did marry was rich and powerful but abusive. So when he goes missing, she secretly hopes he'll never come back-until she learns that he died running from an FBI probe of his investment firm. Not only has he left Sophia penniless, he's left her to face all the townspeople he cheated.
Sophia is reduced to looking for any kind of work to pay the bills and support her daughter. With no other options, she becomes housekeeper for none other than Ted, now a successful suspense writer. He can't bring himself to abandon her, not at Christmas, but he refuses to get emotionally involved. He learned his lesson the last time.
Or will the season of love and forgiveness give them both another chance at happiness?
The best part of this story was the tension between the hero and heroine and the slow way they learned to forgive and understand each other. The heroine, especially, was not one I thought I'd like (based on how she appeared in the previous books in the Whiskey Creek series) but now I can say she's my favourite (besides Callie from When Summer Comes)!

Because the build up was so gradual, and painful for the characters, as they grew and learned more about themselves and each other, I really expected an explosion of sweetness at the end. Does that sound funny? I wanted a satisfying denouement, where I finally got to enjoy their being together.

That wasn't a spoiler; this is romance, after all -- but this next bit is: It seemed a bit odd for the ending of the book to focus on the downfall of another character.

Yet since this book is part of a series (even though each one can be read as a stand alone), I'm really excited for the next one, where I get to see these characters on the sidelines. If you've read a book or two in the series, you'll know what I mean when I say I can't wait to see Sophia and Ted sitting together in a booth at Black Gold!

Meanwhile, I also read three older books this week:

A Room Made of Windows by Eleanor Cameron

This is one of those young adult novels from many years ago that makes you wonder why YA sounds so much younger now. The book is in distant third pov and there are lots of scenes where not everything is spelled out, and the reader has to work out what's happening. I used to read these books when I was younger myself, so why would a book like this be considered difficult for today's readers?

An interesting connection - I'd heard before of the controversy surrounding the Oompa-Loompas in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But it was only when I Googled Cameron after finishing this book that I learned it was her, with the support of Ursula K. LeGuin, who got Dahl to change them from "the abused, half-naked, African pygmy slaves into their current incarnation as dwarves of mysterious origin whom Willy Wonka adores" (Wikipedia's phrasing).

The entire history, in essays and letters is available on the Horn Book website.

The book mentions a publication for children called St Nicholas, which is real. I saw a copy a couple of weeks ago at the New York Public Library, which was having an exhibit on the importance of children's books:

They also had the real Winnie the Pooh characters!:

Another kids' book I read:

Clarence Goes to Town by Patricia Lauber

Such an adorable story! I was shocked to find out that the author has written one hundred and twenty-five books and even won the Newbery, and yet there's no Wikipedia page about her! I asked Forgotten Bookmarks if she had any Lauber in stock, and she does, so I'll definitely be ordering some.

Speaking of things I didn't know, I also read:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I had no idea - or had forgotten if I'd ever learned - that the Channel Islands were occupied during the Second World War. This is just the sort of book I love, a wartime story of heroes and villains who are simply ordinary people doing the best they can at the time. Featuring adults and children and animals and a landscape that's part of the story. I wish the author had written a pile of other books.

I've also been doing non-fiction research -- here's my ROW80 and NaNoWriMo update! -- reading about automobiles, train travel, kitchens, broken legs, bathing, evening pastimes, and more in 1913-14 in the Dominion of Canada. As of yesterday, I'd cracked 20,000 words in the NaNo story. And over the weekend I had one of those serendipitous moments that happens while writing: an aviary features largely in the NaNo story (despite all of your help the other day, I still don't have a proper title!), and I was a couple of chapters in to Cameron's novel when she started describing an aviary! So that's how I learned that birds can sharpen their beaks on bits of cuttlefish.

As if that wasn't enough, I'm currently reading and hope to review here: The Reader Over Your Shoulder by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge; The Blooding of Jack Absolute by C. C. Humphreys; and a book I just won this weekend!: Shadow Spinner: Collection 1 by Andrew Leon.

Here's a great sign I saw at the New York Public Library:

Do you write what you know?
What was the last 'classic' YA you read? How do you think they compare to today's books?
What have you learned recently while reading?


Zan Marie said…
Glad to inspire you, Deniz.
Ha! I write what I can research! I'm with Kevin. I think you can write from strange POV's and from different times and places by allowing the story to invest you.

Of course, my current WIP is all to close to home. ;-)
Deniz Bevan said…
I think I must set my novels in far off historical time periods just for the fun of researching... It's like being at school but without the nerve-wracking exams and presentations, just the fun of reading!
Carol Riggs said…
Hey, I like the covers of Kevin's books. Nice. I don't mind writing what I don't know--but I try to check my facts on stuff that's more unfamiliar. Hmm, I tend not to read the "classic" YAs, but I've read some. Ordinary People, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Giver, etc. They are pretty powerful and intense.
Deniz Bevan said…
Ooh, thanks Carol -- I haven't yet read the first two that you mentioned!
M Pax said…
I think to some degree we do write something of what we know, but I read... can't remember which writer... said if we wrote what we knew most books would be about adults in slippers, slapping keys, and drinking coffee. He said it's better to write out fantasies. Maybe because our passion is real, it comes off?
J.L. Murphey said…
WTG Deniz! Go, Deniz, go!

About writing what you know, if you do enough research you can know a thing.
Lara Lacombe said…
Awesome progress--keep it up! :)
Anonymous said…
I think people can write about what they don't know if an idea grabs them hard and they do a lot of research.

I love the library sign.
S.P. Bowers said…
Thanks for the post Kevin! I've always taken 'write what you know' to mean I have to know my characters, otherwise they won't be true.

I love Guernsey literary and potato peel pie society. I may have to pull that out and give it another read.
Hi Denise .. fascinating to find out about that lady who's written 125+ books - that is amazing ... and good for you for ordering more of her books.

I don't know how you read so much, write so much and then blog intelligently!

The Channel Islands were overrun during the War ... and there are lots of interesting stories about those times - well I'm sure they were extremely terrifying at the time ...

Those Keep Calm Signs are around here too .. cheers Hilary
Deniz Bevan said…
True, M and Medeia - if we're passionate about something, hopefully it passes on to the reader.

Thanks so much, Jo and Lara!

We should talk about that one on the forum book club, Sara.

Aww, thanks Hilary!
Trisha F said…
I don't think "write what you know" has to be a restriction - I think if you want to write something you don't know, it's probably best to do some research on it at least so you have a better idea of what you're writing about. I often get nervous, though, 'cause I rarely do in-depth research for my novels. I sure do search Google a lot though. :)
Liz Fichera said…
Most writing rules were meant to be broken, IMO.

This is genius: "...peel it apart and give yourself permission to infiltrate the humanity of your characters, whatever their occupations or histories."

Couldn't agree with you more!
Deniz Bevan said…
I loved that line too Liz!
nutschell said…
I agree with Kevin! I think write what you know points to general knowledge writers have access to. Great post!
Old Kitty said…
I always subscribe to the notion that there are certain universal themes that we all know and experience. I think the difference comes in with the practical side of things - basic research to make your characters believable - e.g. unique stresses that stem from doing a particular job, etc.

Anyways my classic YA is SE Hinton's Outsiders. :-) No zombies, dystopia, vampires etc - just troubled (male) have and have-not teens trying to live a normal life as possible without killing each other! Take care
Anonymous said…
I've always struggled with "write what you know" with regard to speculative fiction, but I suppose I know my imagination better than anybody else, right? Great post.
Anonymous said…
I think people can write about what they don't know if the idea is strong, they know the characters well, and they've done the research.

YA does sound younger now. I want to read those books.
Deniz Bevan said…
I get distracted by research, Trisha - it's so much fun!
Deniz Bevan said…
Thanks Nutschell!

Ooh, great recommendation, Kitty. I've heard of that book but never read it.

That's a great way of looking at it Milo!

Hey wait - maybe that's why we suddenly have New Adult, Medeia. I hadn't thought of it like that before.

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