Write What You Know, a Variation on the Theme
For a long time I have wondered why — Write What You Know — is the most common advice given to people who are new to the practice of writing. It’s not bad advice. I don’t disagree with it, but I’ve never thought it was particularly helpful.
Unless your career is in law, journalism or law enforcement, your profession may not tie into mystery or suspense easily. That doesn’t disqualify anyone from being a writer, but if your field is computer programming, carpentry or whatever, it’s not clear what to do next.
After mulling it over for some time I have decided that a variation on the theme would be helpful. Although it is usually better to frame advice in a positive way, I think rephrasing the statement into the negative is a more helpful way to advise aspiring writers.
Don’t write what you don’t know. Is there anyone who disagrees with that statement? After that there is a corollary piece of advice. If you want to write about something you don’t know well, learn about that something before you start writing about it.
My novels take place in Illinois and Kansas during the 1840s and 1850s. I started by knowing almost nothing about the time period. There wasn’t anyone around who knew about it by living through it. There were, however histories and, much more helpful, there were documents written by people who lived at that time. Letters, newspapers and diaries were great sources about how people thought and felt. I can not over-emphasize the importance of seeking primary sources. Every historian or commentator starts from a point-of-view. Even attempts to present information in a non-biased way, cannot be completely successful.
I have written two novels about Abraham Lincoln. I relied heavily on documents written by Lincoln. Historians debate any number of things about the elusive “real man” behind the icon. I have my own ideas about the issues. For example, in one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates Lincoln made a statement suggesting that women would be able to vote in the future. Some historians apparently feel the statement was a joke he made. Others seem to think he was making a statement about the equality of men and women. Personally, I think it was both. By the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in my opinion Lincoln no longer told stories only for entertainment as he had earlier in his life. I believe he used humor in a masterful way manner to bring up issues and concerns that would have been startling or controversial if addressed directly.