Friday, September 10, 2010

Writing Tip of the Week - Write What You Know by E.A. West

One of the most popular pieces of advice given to writers is: Write what you know.

My question to you is this: Are we supposed to take this advice literally?

I seriously doubt it. Each of us has a finite amount of knowledge, regardless of our level of education. There is always something we’re not familiar with, something we can learn. If we only write what we already know, we will have very limited options for characters and plots. We would never grow as writers or as people because we would never step outside our knowledge base to learn new things to write in new areas.

In my case, I would have some very strange characters and quite possibly some strange stories as well. My knowledge of people and the world is colored by autism. Everything I know has been processed through an autistic brain, and there’s a good chance my initial perceptions would be considered weird by a neurotypical (non-autistic) person. I know this affects my writing. I have been known to give characters inappropriate responses to situations; dialogue that sounded perfectly natural to me but came across as stilted or formal to others; and I have asked many times how people would react in a given situation because it is so far outside my personal experience that I can’t even begin to guess what a proper response would be.

If I only wrote what I already know, my writing wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as the instructions on a box of toothpicks. My characters would fall flat because the emotional response wouldn’t be what most people expect; the dialogue wouldn’t always make sense to anyone else, although another autistic might get it; and there would be huge, seemingly random leaps in logic that are connected by only the thinnest of threads. It would be an editor’s nightmare.

With these limitations in what I know, what is my solution? I research, I ask questions, I study know people--both real and fictional--react in all kinds of situations, and I make up what sounds to me like a neurotypical person. I may not already know these things when I start, but I can learn them. It’s not always easy, but it is necessary for me to be able to write realistic neurotypical characters. It is freeing for me to write an autistic character and the way she perceives the world, because it allows me to show others how I perceive it. That’s one of the advantages of writing what you know. Your personal experiences and perceptions enable you to bring your characters and the situations you place them in to life, characters and situations others would love to read about.

Back to the original question: Should you literally write what you know?

By all means, use the knowledge and experiences stored in your brain. But don’t limit yourself to that. Expand upon what you already know and allow yourself to stretch your writing into uncharted territory. If you have a story idea but you don’t know much, if anything, about the topic, do some research. Look it up with Google (or your favorite search engine), visit your local library, talk to your family and friends. A critique group can also be an invaluable source of information, and since they’re all writers too, they likely won’t find it strange if you ask something like how many boxes of macaroni and cheese it would take to fill a swimming pool. Or if suspense and thrillers are more your forte, what the best way to dispose of a body would be.

Life is a learning experience. Why not make writing one too? Everything is fodder for a writer, and those odd bits of seemingly useless information you acquire while living your everyday life or while researching something for one story could very well be invaluable for another story, enabling you to write what you know from your expanded knowledge base.

So instead of just writing what you know, use the knowledge you have and try to follow this piece of advice: Write what you can learn.

E.A. West is a lifelong lover of books and storytelling. In high school, she discovered the wonders of sharing her stories with others through writing. She picked up her pen in a creative writing class and hasn’t laid it down yet. Her love of writing encompasses not only the romance genre but also a variety fiction and non-fiction styles.

Born and raised in Indiana, she still resides there today with her family and a small zoo of pets that includes the typical dogs and cats and the more unusual African water frogs and a ribbon snake. Her interests are as varied as her critters, and she's been known to carry on conversations about everything from politics and current events to gardening and crocheting, and all kinds of topics in between.

DREAMS DO COME TRUE -- available now from White Rose Publishing
RILEY'S MISSION -- available now from The Wild Rose Press


Gail Pallotta said...

Hi E. A.,
I enjoyed your interview and reading about your approach to writing, which sounds like a good one to me. Congratulations on your books. I wish you many sales.