Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Hazards of Writing What You Know

Write what you know.

It's perhaps the first piece of serious writing advice anyone gets, and it is one of the most repeated pieces of advice writers hear. It's good advice too, because after all who better to write about homicide investigation, psychological therapy, or murder than someone who's done it before?

Pictured: An expert in all three.
While there is a certain amount of logic to this line of reasoning though there are hazards that come with taking these four words too closely to heart and not balancing them out with anything else. Some of those pitfalls include...

Being Too Thorough

There's a fine line between doing your research and boring your audience. Crime scene investigation is a good example. Being a CSI tech is an important job, and there's a lot of work involved in the job. But if you get into the minutia of the chemical sprays involved, the layers of precautions taken to protect you from contaminating the crime scene, and the sheer amount of tedium involved in testing and re-testing the same evidence to be sure that your results are correct chances are your audience is going to stop caring in a big damn hurry.

And then you inject the mitochondrial membrane with...
There's a difference between being realistic and covering every, single detail of what your professionals do. Have a doctor, a medical examiner, or a hairdresser as the lead in your story by all means, but don't bog your reader down with unnecessary details that don't advance the story or which aren't necessary for your book to make sense. Just because you find the process of how a public defender gets assigned a case to be fascinating doesn't mean your audience really cares so long as a lawyer shows up to defend the character accused of manslaughter.

You'll Never Branch Out

It's a good idea to write about situations and events you can make believable. That doesn't mean you should write about the same thing over and over again though. For instance you might hit your stride writing novels that always involve horses, and if you manage to carve a niche out doing that then good for you. If you aren't Dick Francis though you're going to start getting pretty predictable pretty quickly, especially when every book is about a jockey tracking down someone poisoning horses, rigging races, or corruption on a race track. I call this Scooby-Doo Syndrome, and it's a great way for your work to get stagnant in record time.

I'm sure there's another example here somewhere...
You should indeed write about things you know; it is never a good idea to make things up when you can track down the facts and get it right, especially if people reading your story will point out that you botched something important that puts a big hole right in the middle of your plot. So write what you know, but make sure you branch out so you know as much as possible.

It Will Be Hard To Keep Yourself Out Of The Story

Nothing is more embarrassing than realizing you've accidentally put yourself in your novel (except perhaps trying to explain to people that no, it's totally necessary for you to be mentioned by name in your own damn novel). Authors can avoid doing this by writing characters who come from different backgrounds, or who have different religions, ethnicities, sexual preferences, gender, etc. One of the easiest ways to put that necessary barrier between yourself and your character(s) is to write something other than what you already know.

Like being eloquent and well-spoken, perhaps?
There's always going to be a little of yourself in your characters, it's something you can't avoid and something you shouldn't really try to. But when your author photo and bio reads more like your character introduction than not it might be time to back up and re-evaluate whether you're too close to the project and what effect that's having on the book. Unless you're Ian Fleming... seriously Ian Fleming was James Bond.

No Advice Is Universal

It's important to remember no writing advice is absolute. The reason for that is because every book, just like every author is unique. What might be good for one particular young adult novel about the son of a sea hag coming into his heritage won't necessarily be good for a particular gritty, hard-boiled thriller about a detective chasing down the terrorist splinter-cell who killed her partner. You should always take advice, even good advice, with a grain of salt. Even if you find it right here at the Literary Mercenary.

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