Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere

Write What You Know–Or Should You?

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We’ve all heard it, from just about every resource on writing we’ve come across. Every time I think of that, my muse has two things to say. First, he asks why the heck I’m not writing “what I know”. Then, he tells me to dig deeper into things I don’t know as much about, because he likes the research as much as I do.

There are many writers who follow the advice. John Grisham, Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell (okay, so she wasn’t a forensic investigator, but she did work in the medical examiner’s office), even Ian Fleming. Lawyer, forensic anthropologist, intelligence officer. They all sound like cool jobs. I mean, who doesn’t want to know what Ian Fleming the intelligence officer did for his job? Granted, many not-so-exciting jobs have been glorified by the entertainment industry. Rick Castle seems to do very little writing and not much editing, or book signings (I can remember one), or negotiating contracts, or meeting with his editor, or writing. How does he write anything when he seems to spend all his time at murder scenes and shadowing his “muse”? I’d be curious to learn just how much time Patricia Cornwell spends writing every day. I’ll bet it’s way more than Castle does.

If you’re supposed to write what you know, then you should write about waiting tables, doing accounting, running a machine to cut precision parts, or dumping ingredients into a huge vat to make processed cheese, right? What about butchering chickens on an assembly line or driving a combine through thousands of acres of soybeans? Question is, would anyone want to read about how you drive from Minneapolis to Atlanta, unload the dozen truck-sized bales of hay you hauled down there, and bring a return load of whatever all the way back to Minneapolis? That’s what, three or four days of driving, sleeping, driving, sleeping, etc. Or about milking a hundred head of dairy cattle twice a day, plus time spent cleaning the barn, feeding the cows, mowing the hay, baling the hay, or knowing you can’t leave for more than a day because the cows absolutely have to be milked morning and evening.

Naw, it’s way more fun to write about stuff we may not know much if anything about. Generally, we like to write about things we’d like to know more about. I’ve never seen a stone circle in Ireland–heck, I’ve never been to Ireland–but I wrote about one. The research was fun! I’ve been to San Francisco once, but I’ve done more research since for my mystery series. My writing teacher has been enjoying her research in Door County, Wisconsin, not only for the setting, but for tips about making fudge. Granted, she also lives in Wisconsin, so it isn’t like she has to fly from the Midwest to Oregon or Hawaii for her research, but she can head up to Door County whenever she needs to for more research. Wouldn’t it be a blast to research the Ghiardelli factory in SF? Wait, how about researching the chocolate confectioner in Austria that makes the good Mozart chocolates (not the ones they sell everywhere–and if you’ve ever been to Salzburg, you know the difference)?

That said, I’ve also written a mystery that takes place in rural Minnesota, a place I’ve lived my entire life and for which I need to do little or no research, which allows me to do two things: use the time I would have spent on research to write, and really focus on making my familiar setting memorable to people who are unfamiliar with it.

My muse is poking me (back off, I’m getting to that). Now, if you’ve had experience doing something unique, non-traditional, or just plain interesting, try to use it in your writing. Take advantage of what you do know. Have you ever been skydiving? Swam with dolphins (or manatees, or sharks, or rays)? What about a grape stomp? Renaissance fair? Add your knowledge to your writing–time you don’t have to spend researching you can spend writing, and it’s easier to describe the actual experience to your readers. For me, it’s my experience as an aircraft mechanic. It’s just a matter of how to incorporate that knowledge into a book. That’s on the slate for next year’s NaNoWriMo.

Speaking of NaNo, I’m all up for being anyone’s writing buddy. Let me know in the comments if you are interested, and I’ll let you know what my NaNo user name is so we can connect on the nanowrimo.org site. The more, the merrier!

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Author: Julie Holmes, author

Pen names: J. M. Holmes, J. M. Goebel A fiction writer since elementary school (many years ago), and NaNoWriMo annual participant for a decade, I've been published in small press magazines such as "Fighting Chance" and "The Galactic Citizen". I write adult mystery with a touch of romance, mystery with extrasensory elements, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy, and I'm represented by the fabulous Cynthia Zigmund of Second City Publishing Services. In real life, I am a technical writer with a family of two teens, a wonderful hubby, one cat (what writer doesn't have cats??), two dogs, four chickens, and more chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits than any garden should have to deal with. My garden, our hobby farm, and Nature's annual seasons are some of my muses.

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