Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 3, 2012

Write What You Know

shannondonnelly_nm1Writers in the Storm welcomes Shannon Donnelly back, as this month, she makes an excellent argument for writing what you know-and better yet-tells us how.

by Shannon Donnelly

Writing advice can often seem mysterious. The phrase “write what you know” at first left me shaking my head. It’s often seemed to me that when you know too much about something that knowledge can make you the worst person to write about it—you end up assuming too much. On the other hand, when you know nothing about a subject, you don’t even know the mistakes you’re making. But I eventually had an “ah ha” moment about this.

This “ah ha” came when I was looking for a story idea. I’d contracted to do a couple of novellas (about 100 pages each, so a long short story). In the search for ideas, something happened in real life—something I’d confided to a friend got back to another friend. It was a small case of betrayal—both on my part for saying something in the first place and the friend’s for repeating a confidence—and it stung. It was, in fact, perfect material for a writer. Ah ha!

Writing what you know means taking out either your experiences—or those of your closest friends—and putting them to use. Meaning giving them to characters and seeing what they do. It means taking things you have experienced—such as this betrayal—and writing about it. Everything else you can research, but if you don’t have the emotional background, it’s going to be hard to fake it.

I think this is why Somerset Maugham advised writers to go out and live first—you need to know a few things about life before you can write about it. And I see this mistake cropping up in manuscripts.

Recently I trained as an EMT First Responder—we live in a rural area and we need all the local help we can train. That training has changed how I look at accidents and illness—I could write better now about any scene with trauma or trouble. And I read differently too—when folks have EMTs staff doing dumb things like hauling someone out of a car without a long spinebord, I cringe. That’s writing what you know—if you don’t know it, you have to find someone who does and pick their brains. Make their knowledge yours. And if you can't find the right person, time to do the research.

You can know something very well from books. Mary Stewart did all of her traveling before she wrote via book. And Nora Robert’s fantastic descriptions of a glass blower in Born in Fire all came from her research instead of hands-on knowing.

Now all this may seem obvious, but the advice had to hit me upside the head before it took. From the manuscripts I’ve seen in contests, other folks need to learn this as well. Get some knowing under your belt before you start into that writing—and if you don’t know, go and find out. Live a little more. Then write about it. Or change your characters into someone you do know.

You either write about yourself—or you write about those around you whom you know. But you’ve got to know the truth of your characters deep in your soul.

Whether you came down on the side of Laura Drake or Fae Rowen in the Write What You Know WITS Throwdown, Shannon has offered compelling arguments for writing what you know. What experience do you have with writing what you know? Or writing something you know nothing about?

Shannon Donnelly’s latest book Burn Baby Burn, an Urban Fantasy, has just come out from Cool Gus Publishing.

Her writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."

Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and she recently published Paths of Desire, a Historical Regency romance, of which Romantic Historical Lovers notes: “a story where in an actress meets an adventurer wouldn’t normally be at the top of my TBR pile; but I’ve read and enjoyed other books by this author and so I thought I’d give this one a go. I’m glad I did. I was hooked and pulled right into the world of the story from the very beginning…Highly recommended.” Paths of Desire and her other Regency romances can be found as ebooks with on all ebook formats, and with Cool Gus Publishing.

She has had novellas published in several anthologies, has had young adult horror stories published and is the author of several computer games. She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and only one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at sd-writer.com, facebook.com/sdwriter, and twitter/sdwriter.

BBB_final_300x200Burn Baby Burn
Can a demon hunter raise a little hell?
When a half-demon baby puts Mackenzie Solomon’s life—and her job as a demon hunter—on the line, she can’t turn her back on the half-pint of evil. But ‘Junior’ is actually part of a trap to turn Mackenzie’s partner, Josh, and his extraordinary charming skills to the dark uses of the ancient, fallen Grigori, the angels once assigned to be Watchers over humanity. Is she going to have to make a choice about the men in her life?

Can a charmer talk his way out of his destiny?

Josh learned months ago that the bad blood in his demon hunting partner brings out a part of he can’t control—including his desire for her. With a prophecy out on him, he’s more than a little worried some of those bad things should stay burried. But is Mackenzie really the start of something bad—or could she be everyone’s salvation?

Can a couple of humans move Heaven to save Earth? 

Mackenzie’s bosses at The Endowment—the place responsible for keeping the peace between heaven and hell—want her to bring in the baby demon and not for anything good. With the Endowment after her and demons to stop, Mackenzie knows she’s on her own.

 But she’s going to have to learn to trust Josh—and to use what’s sparking between them. Because it's going to take the kind of love that bonds souls forever to keep the world from ending.

0 comments on “Write What You Know”

  1. I'm on your side, Shannon. I'd be terrified to write on a subject I didn't know! I always pick up stories about women on motorcycles, but usually end up throwing them across the room, because it becomes clear very early, that the author doesn't ride - they get details wrong.

    My upcoming series on Bull riding came from my passion for the sport (from the sidelines only!) I've followed for over ten years. Still, I worry - I've never been in a rider's locker room to see exactly what goes on. I hope rider's wives don't read my novel and throw it across the room!

    The one exception I'll point out, in Fae's case - writing other worlds are an exception - you can make up the rules!

    1. It's nice to see more people getting the proper interpretation of the maxim. What we "know" is a pretty fluid thing, eh?

      While I'm with you, Laura, on making up the rules (Asimov invented an entire *universe*) it's not truly a free-for-all, as Asimov's example shows. Once you make rules, you have to stick to 'em, and even the rules you make have to make enough sense to readers that they'll be able to follow the story. No story, no readers.

      And in the end, nobody reads our stories for the technical details. Sure, I've learned from reading Sue Grafton's books that H&K makes a 9-shot and a 13-shot, but I wouldn't care if Kinsey Millhone carried nothing more than a generic "trusty sidearm." I read the stories for the people. And that's what Grafton clearly knows, right?

    2. But making up the rules means you need to know them, too. You can too easily forget what you've made up so you need a bible then for all the details. (I keep records/notes on my Regency romances so I know what's researched and what I had to invent to make the story work.)

  2. I was widely traveled and had lived several lives before I began writing, but I didn't want to write about any of it. So for a long time I was stimied. Then I read an interview by an author who said, write what you read. That did it for me. I wrote a paragraph of a regency and let it sit for a month. Then I told my husband I'd decided to start writing Regencies. Do I get to use my life knowledge? Absolutely. Romance is about life, but I also do a great deal of reasearch which I love.

  3. Great blog Shannon. I write history so I can read the history books but when it comes the "know-hows" of those days, I've read diaries and books published during the time period. [I haunt antique stores--antique books from antiquarian shops are way expensive.] Both my grandmothers were one-room-school-house teachers and rode a horse to school! Talk about from the horse's mouth! Sorry, I had to say that. 🙂 Their tales were wonderful and gave me insite into not only the experience but like you said, the emotion of what took place and the thinking of people of that error. Now if I can just get my little Chinese mother in law on tape with her stories of WW!!, I'll be in heaven. The woman experienced and saw so many terrible things at the hands of the Japanese. Her story would make a movie. Alas, it's difficult to get her to talk about it.

    1. It's also cool to do recreation stuff. I've done Regency dancing, I've written by candlelight, and ridden side saddle. You can get an amazing about of experience about what life was like if you go looking for it.

      1. This reminds me of when went I went to a Civil War reinactment in Texas. Men were running around in those horrible wool uniforms and women were cooking in front of tents. Guess who fainted with the heat in her shorts? You got it. It was me. 🙂

  4. Thanks for another great post, Shannon. I come down on the if I don't know, I look it up side of this ... or ask an expert. What I do know is the setting and in all my books that's NYC and it's surrounding burbs ... the tri-state of NY, Con. and NJ and also PA I know. However, I always double check details on certain things with experts or do research on line.

    Speaking of Nora Roberts, she says on her web page that she's never traveled but to Ireland and that all her travels are in her office. All the subjects she uses are done from research. She's been writing since she was a young mother of two babes stuck in a snow storm, a shy woman who has some kind of genius for creating amazing stories like cookies.

    What to hear something funny? I got stuck in the same snow storm, the same year and with two babes at my feet ... but I didn't write a book ... I got evicted from my Brooklyn apartment and ended up sleeping on cushions in my mother's front hall 🙂 Ah yes , the road not taken !!

    1. A great travel book is worth anything. And I could see how it would be hard to write while sleeping on a couch. On the other hand, that's a great experience to use sometime in a story.

  5. I'm currently working on a Navy SEAL story and I read a book by a Navy SEAL before I started and I have some friends that are Navy and one of them has been kind enough to answer duh type questions all the time.

    1. Yes, friends can help if they have experience that you don't. But you also have to remember that their experiences color their thoughts, too--you can get just an angle on things sometimes.

  6. Wow! This hit me in a whole new way, even though I have seen it forever, and couldn't be writing about it if I had no concept.
    So getting that obviou-ism out of the way - it suddenly occurred to me that there are things that I know Too well - that the last thing I want to do is write about it, because I am trying to keep it down to a dull roar. Why put myself back into a stressful yuck situation, when it is still too new? (Job related - I manage 2 rooming houses. I see or handle anything from 10 to 50 people/situations a day, from the nardly to jaw-dropping. (Peyton Place Squared).
    Kind of a too much of a good or bad thing, not something I want to add to, or continue!

    But reading this, I also realized that recently, my personal emotional depth has been going into a journal, and not so much into my writing, and have been actually keeping my self AWAY from anything too emotionally, or angst, laden.

    The interesting thing here, was that what popped up was "voice", and maybe a separation into genres that I really fly with, vs. those I "should"/must slog through. I have no mind-bending epiphany to offer, but did have that moment of something ungluing and separating. If anyone has ever had a chiropractor adjust one's skull, where you can feel/hear bones minutely shift and reseat, that's ~exactly~ what it was like. Suddenly, there was space!

    How odd, and exciting to discover a fixed mode of practice one was falling into, that one wasn't aware of. Such a tiny thought occurring, yet when I really sit down to look at this, I have a feeling that it is going to pay BIG dividends.

    It also lets me know that through my writing practice, even the old becomes new again, and I am ever on a growing adventure! Thank you for this. Blessed are the "everyone knows" writing axioms, as there are those moments when the "old" comes round and hits you anew from left field. I am really excited!

    1. One of the odd things I find is that slogging vs. flying in a book has no relationship to the actual quality--I've had books that I hated writing resonate very well with others and some that were a breeze to write didn't hit folks the same way. There's just no telling. What I do know is that if a scene isn't making me feel something it's not working--not on any level.

  7. This is a great post. I love the idea that you trained as a first responder and have that experience to draw from. One other thing I'd add: write what you love!

    1. Actually, I've known folks who couldn't "write what they loved" -- they love Regencies, but just do not have a historical voice. Sometimes love will lead you in the wrong direction, and sometimes not.

  8. Inspiring! You've made me think of half a dozen new stories already just from thinking about 'What you know' being 'what you've experienced'. Great angle - thank you! 🙂

  9. Hey, Shannon. Always good to hear what you have to share. Sometimes, I think knowing what we write about, can become a burden for the reader. My first book was based on a situation that happened right after I left 8 years of service on an urban school board. Granted this was my first book and I knew zilch about craft. (My mind bogles at my lack of knowledge. LOL) However, I felt I had to record school board related things accurately. Accurate doesn't always make for scintillating reading. 145,000 words later I reached The End. LOL After a million cuts, it worked it's way down to about 96 K.
    Other experiences have cropt up into my books wtih amazing emotional punch. We all have those experiences to pull from.
    Florence, I have to believe sleeping on the floor in your mother's hall has to have worked it's way into some of your writings. Sometimes we need to look back just to appreciate how far we've come.

    1. Yeah, this falls under knowing too much -- I did a book set in the video game world and it was just too much of that and not enough story. Facts can get in the way at times.

    1. If you have five minutes, use that to write (leave blank spaces if you need to for stuff you need to research). Give yourself permission to write badly--just write. (I used to grab five minutes or ten minutes if that was all I had in the mornings.) Just write--don't let anything get in the way of that. It's the only way to get better (and get stuff done).

  10. I have recently experienced this. I've been working on a YA novel for 7 years, and I am simply stuck in the details. It takes place in a location where I have vacationed several times, but I haven't lived there. After Thanksgiving, I was talking to my friend about my crazy family, and she said, "You should write that." I'm now writing fiction based on my family and other people I know, and it is flowing. I will return to my other novel, but for right now, I'm having fun writing again!

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