Write What You Know—Or Not
by Michelle Janene
I have often heard workshop and conference leaders say, “Write what you know.” According to these experts it is important for authenticity and grounding readers in your story to stick to information, situations, and locations that are familiar to you.
Well, that leads to a huge problem for writers like me. I have never met a dragon—though it is a dream of mine. I have never travelled to a distant planet. And I don’t have any neighbors who are fairies or elves. Yes, I am a fantasy writer. Other times I write historical fiction, but—again—this is a problem. I have never lived in the Middle Ages. There are some advantages to having access to primary sources for research and a lot of other history buffs out there who have synthesized the research for me. But even with all I can read and research, would it be considers writing what I know?
Currently, I’m writing a sequel to my first publication for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It’s a story about a spy and a kidnapped woman who ends up running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Never been kidnapped. Never been in Spain. So does this mean I can’t write about these things? Perhaps it’s time to book a trip to Spain.
But recently, I sat around a table talking writing with a group of friends and I heard something that put a new light on our writing. “Write what you are passionate about. And do your research.” I am definitely passionate about my fantasy worlds. I love creating creatures and locations that are inspired by my experiences yet like nothing I know. I have books on dragons, swords, and a shelf full of volumes about the Middle Ages in Europe. Lately, I have spent a lot of time on YouTube watching others run with the bulls, and on Google Maps strolling down the streets of several cities in Spain trying to find new locations for my characters to be seeing and experiencing.
What if neither of those is completely correct. Could it be that writers need to do both? We have to love what we write about. For if there is no joy in the writer there is no interest in the reader. We still need to know our facts no matter the topic of the writing. I’ve heard more than one author say that a reader found something in their story and took issue with its inaccuracy.
Whether we write, fantasy to women’s fiction, historical fiction to literary non-fiction, or any other combination, we can all include the human experience. We know how it feels to fall in love, be betrayed, or win the prize. Emotions are universal and can reach our readers whether they experience them through the life of a dragon, or a knight, or a kidnapped teacher.
This is truly where our story comes to life—in the lives of the characters. The world they live in and the technology they have access to can add layers. But when all is said and done, people want to root for the hero, celebrate when the villain gets his just punishment, and each of us want to know that we are not alone. There are others out there that feel the same way.
So, dear writer here is your mission—should you choose to accept it. Find your passion. Spend time in quality research. And write what you know of being a person who is surrounded by a world of hurting people.
About the Author
Michelle Janene lives and works in Northern California. Most days she blissfully exists in the medieval creations of her mind. She is a devoted teacher, a dysfunctional housekeeper, and a dedicated writer.
She released her first novella Mission: Mistaken Identity in 2015. God’s Rebel came out in 2016, followed by Rebel’s Son and Hidden Rebel in 2017. She has been published in “Guide Post Magazine” and several anthologies. She leads two critique groups and is the founder of Strong Tower Press—Indie solutions for indie authors.
You can read Michelle’s column on the 3rd Tuesday each month here at Pandora’s Box Gazette.