Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Write What You Know -- Stupid Advice Given to Writers

My guest is award winning Romance author, Susan Gable. I always like it when Susan blogs with me. I learn so much.

Susan is a wonderful storyteller. Her article today explains why I find her books so fascinating and real--aside from captivating writing and wry humor which I love.

Write what you know.

It's one of the most common pieces of advice you hear offered to writers.

And I suppose it works for people like John Grisham, a lawyer writing legal thrillers. Or for Robin Cook, a doctor writing medical thrillers.

But just how, exactly, do we explain Stephen King? Pretty sure he's not writing what he knows—and if he is...well, let's not go there.

How many fabulous books would we have missed out on if the writers held to a strict interpretation of write what you know? Vampires? Don't know any. Do know writers who make a great living writing about them. A school for sorcerers? Never been to one -- doubt J. K. Rowling has, either. It's worked out well for her.

I'm not mechanically inclined—but my first heroine was a mechanic. My artistic talents are limited to drawing stick figures, yet my last hero was a comic book artist. I've never parented a child who's had a heart transplant—my second book featured such a parent and child. I've never parented a child with acute aplastic anemia or had a child through a sperm bank, either. But my new book, The Family Plan, features exactly such a child.

So how do we manage this? Research! And in today's internet age, research has never been easier. You cannot only access all sorts of articles on the subject you need to learn about, but you can connect with real people who know these things.

For my second book, The Mommy Plan, I was in touch with a mom who had a young son who'd had a heart transplant. She was willing to answer all sorts of questions, even the slightly odd ones, like, would you let him get his ear pierced? She was awesome, too, because she understood that her experience was HER experience, and other people's experiences and reactions would be different.

For A Kid to the Rescue, I had local resources that helped me out with the legal aspects of the book. I had a family lawyer who helped me with the custody case, and the man who is now the District Attorney for Erie actually answered my questions about the criminal case in the book.

For The Family Plan, I connected via email with a nurse who works with kids having bone marrow transplants. She was able to answer all my medical questions. I found an amazing document designed for the parents of bone marrow transplant kids that explained everything in great detail, including what these kids could eat or not eat. My critique partner happened to be my source for information about the heroine's suddenly high-risk pregnancy because the situation had happened to her. So I bugged her constantly while writing the book. (See, don't write what you know—write what other people know and bug the heck out of them! Actually, I've found people are very willing to share their experiences. Ask politely. But don't be afraid to ask questions.)

The part where you DO have to write what you know is when it comes down to the emotions. You may not have experienced the exact situation you've put your characters in, but you can IMAGINE what it would be like. You want to make sure you give them their own emotional response, not YOUR emotional response. But it's okay to tap into your own emotions. That's writing what you know.

Readers respect honesty in writing. Venture into the dark places. Thank God I've never known the absolute fear of losing my child—but I can put myself there. I've lost other loved ones, and I can extrapolate that losing a child would be even worse. I had a foster son who left my home, and I cried for two days, heartbroken. I used these things to get into my heroine's head for The Family Plan.

What I don't know and have written through research and instinct: being an architect, being a chef, being involved in a custody case, being involved in a criminal prosecution of a man who murdered my sister, being an art therapist, being a runaway surrogate mother...

What I've written that I do know: Parents should put their children first. Relationships don't always run smoothly. Anything worth having is worth fighting for. We all hunger for love and acceptance of who we are, the way we are. Change is hard, and often painful.

So when someone tells you to write what you know, don't take them literally. Be emotionally honest—and do your homework. But write what moves you. Because that will move your readers, too.

  • What have you written that you "don't know?" What have you written that you do know?

  •  Do you have questions on how to do research? Can you think of any other advice that’s often given to writers that you disagree with?

The Family Plan Blurb:
4.5 Stars from RT Magazine!

She's stirring up the gene pool!

Dr. Amelia Young has meticulously organized her family plan. Wonderful daughter? Done. Man? Unnecessary. All Amelia has ever needed is carefully selected DNA. So what if the donor turns out to be a ridiculously hot chef with a distracting butt and wicked smile? That only proves she had good taste in genes.

Anonymously donating his DNA at a clinic when he was a student is one thing. A strange woman at his door requesting a second deposit is quite another. But when Finn Hawlins realizes Amelia needs another child to save her first -- his first -- he relents. And when that first kid turns up on his doorstep a few months later, he's in this family deep!

~ *  ~ * ~ * ~ 

Susan Gable has sold seven books to Harlequin's Superromance line. Her books have been Rita and Golden Heart Finalists, she's been a Waldenbooks Bestseller, been three times nominated for Romantic Time's Best Superromance of the Year, and she's won numerous other awards, including the National Readers' Choice Award. Her new book, The Family Plan, got 4.5 Stars from RT. It hits shelves on July 13th. 

Visit Susan's website:


~Sia McKye~ said...

Welcome back to Over Coffee, Susan. Loved the article.

aries18 said...

Hi Sia, Hi Susan, Great posting! I find myself in total agreement with you, writing only you know would seriously limit any writer. Research helps with information on almost any subject and, like you mentioned, there are many people out there that will help out with intimate information.

I really enjoyed your article. Thanks a lot. I hope you both have a terrific day!

Tonya Kappes said...

Hi Susan! I love research~especially if it involves a spa~!
I think writing about a child with a heart condition would be hard, but I do notice that people love to tell their story. And we can write it in a HEA!

Terrie said...

Hi Susan ! Looking forward to read your new book.

Sia, great blog!

Mason Canyon said...

Susan, your books sounds great. So glad you write outside of 'what you know.' I'm adding these to my wish list.

Sia, thanks for sharing another great author with us.

Thoughts in Progress

Olivia Cunning said...

If I wrote only what I know from first-hand experience that would be one boring book. :-)

I love the premise of "The Family Plan". Congratulations on your new release.

Elle J Rossi said...

Good Morning Sia and Susan!


You're right. I've been writing for about 18 months and I've heard that piece of advice about a bazillion times. What what you know? I think that really limits the possibilities.

My WIP features a witch and a demon. While I may have met a few "witches" in my life, I still needed to do my research. And demons? Who knew there was so much to learn about their story.

My other WIP is a contemporary. One of the major characters is a coffee shop. Now that I know a little something about. Like most of the others who visit Sia's blog, I LOVE COFFEE!

Susan Gable said...

Hi, everyone! Sorry it took me so long to get here -- I go to casino dealer school in the morning. (Almost done with classes. Our casino is just adding table games. We're probably starting July 8th!)

Tonya, spa research? I'm SO there with you! When do we go? lol.

Thanks to all of you who found the premise of Family Plan intriguing. I've wanted to write a savior sibling story for years. And the good thing with a romance novel is you KNOW I'm going to give you a HEA. Which makes it a lot easier to take a chance on me. (g)

If anyone has any questions about anything writing related (or whatever! lol) ask away. I love questions.

~Sia McKye~ said...

I can see it all now, we're gonna be seeing a book or mention of a Casino sometime soon, lol!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Woohoo, Tonya, that sounds like a good one. Need a beta reader?

Susan Gable said...

Oh, Sia, I'm sure the casino stuff will eventually make it into a book. I mean, I'm doing first-hand research, right? lol.

Carol Silvis said...

Hi Susan,
Great post! I agree that branching out from what you know makes for better story ideas. I'm sure having such wonderful research makes your books powerful.

sherilynwinrose said...

I like to say, 'Write what you know and if you don't, learn it, do your research!'

The scope of my novels would be very narrow if I weren't willing to expand my knowledge base... and most of the time I enjoy the research as much as the writing.

Susan your premise is wonderful.

Lorraine said...

Excellent article, Susan! Looking forward to reading your new books.

I'm not published, yet, but I'm currently writing my sixth and seventh novels. Not one of which did I get away from doing research of some kind. I've always enjoyed the challenge of learning something new,and whether it pertains to the craft of writing, location, occupation, etc., the internet is a great resource.

Keep up the great work!

Joanna Terrero said...

Hi ladies, this is an interesting subject that never occurred to me before, I'd always nodded at the write what you know advice, but the truth is that's a hard one to follow in fiction.

Susan, thanks for sharing.

Dana Fredsti said...

Hi, Susan and Sia! What a great topic and I so agree with you! Although maybe Stephen King's led a more bizarre life than we know about... :-)

I think it's possible to write about what you know to some degree, but how in the world could anyone write about being a werewolf or any of the other paranormal critters out there? Can't research a lot of it, which is why writers use their imagination and create very richly detailed worlds of their own... and as long as the internal logic of the world/story/characters is consistent, it seems real enough when we read!

Susan Gable said...

I will tell you, one of my favorite new tools for organizing my researching is MS OneNote. (It's part of the MS Office Suite.) It's a computerized "notebook" - and it's literally able to be set up with tabs and everything, just like a real notebook. Now instead of printing out all of my research (using loads of ink and paper) and punching holes, and loading it into a three-ring binder, now I just click SEND TO ONENOTE. Internet pages get sent there, emails with my crit partners get sent there, pictures, even music files that I want for a particular book can be added to the OneNote notebook for that book. And you can just make new notebooks for each book.

Far less clutter in my office now, and it's SEARCHABLE!!!

Jennifer August said...

I think part of the fun is learning about what you DON'T know! Research is what I use to help guide me to develop better plots and characters. And (as said once-preggers CP) I can heartily vouch for the excitement of giving information that will be used in a book. It was flipping cool!

Susan Gable said...

LOL. Thanks, Jen. See, when you tell me something, you never know when it's going to get used in a book. (Sia, I don't think I told you this but...your name got "stolen" for use in The Family Plan. lol. I gave it to the heroine's best friend who's holding down the fort in Maine while she's in Erie.)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Really? Oh how cool. Now, I KNOW I have to have this book, lol! Not that I've missed any, but how cool to be a character in a book.

And I really envy you having One Note--I've been lustin after it for some time.

Kat Sheridan said...

Loved the article, and the premise for the book sounds wonderful! Um, since I write murder and mayhem, I'm DEFINITELY pulling things from my imagination. And forensic blogs. And my membership in the Kiss of Death chaper of RWA ("For Murderously Inclined Romantics"!) I've always said the writer's job is to make sh!t up and lie like crazy!

Conda V. Douglas said...

Excellent article, and I always had trouble with "write about what you know" until I realized it doesn't mean, necessarily, what I've experienced.

And since I write horror, that's a good thing.

Judi Fennell said...

Research... sometimes it's more fun than writing the actual book. With the stories I write (Genies and Mermen), I'm always amazed at how my Religions of the World, and Mythology 101 classes from college have come in handy!

Susan Gable said...

Sia, the link to the book for sale at Harlequin (where it's actually available for purchase NOW) takes you to my website and the excerpt. Can you fix it? :-) Thanks! And jonesing for OneNote -- I can tell you, it's worth it. Do you know they offer a free 60 day trial? Give it a test drive.

Kat, I always chuckled at people who wanted to know if we've actually done all the "stuff" (and you know WHICH "stuff" I mean lol) in our romance novels, but then don't think to ask the mystery writers if, you know, they've ever killed somebody. LOL!

Judi, I could see how those classes would come in handy for paranormaly stuff.

~Sia McKye~ said...

I think I have it now, Susan. Sorry about the mix up. Links were giving me fits last night.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Judi, I loved Mythology in school. I've forgotten a lot though. And I love how you use it in your Mer books and the Genies.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Kat, does mentally considering how to murder someone count as experience?

I do love some of the blogs on murder and mayham, and I love forensics. Fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,

Thanks for this opportunity to ask you some questions.. One in particular has been giving me a bit of sleepless nights..

Assuming I have gotten an R from a few well known publishers. Do I shelve the story or do I seek a small time publisher (say a start up) who "might" accept my work and publish it?

Since mine are novellas so far - it is going to a e-book, no matter who the publisher is. I am not too tech savvy and I am not much aware of self-marketing etc (which is a must for small scale pubs).

So the whole debate (internally in my mind) is.. : Do I need the assurance that I can write a good story and get it published? (and be unhappy later if sales aren't too high) OR Do I be firm in my "dream" to choose the right publisher? (and being unhappy now with piling R's?)

Any suggestion would be welcome.

Susan Gable said...

Anon, that's hard to answer, because it really all depends on what YOU want out of publishing. Rejections, however, are an unfortunate part of the process, even AFTER you've made a sale. That's something a lot of folks who haven't made their first sale don't like to hear about, and yet, should take heart in knowing that pubbed authors are often in the same boat -- we get rejections, too. The book I did before this one, A Kid to the Rescue, was actually rejected by the then-senior editor at Super. When another senior came on-board, I asked her to take another look at the book -- and she bought it. So a rejection doesn't mean "this book sucks" even though that's how most of us writers interpret it. It means "this book is not the right book for this editor at this time."

I say always shoot for your top publishers first. Which you seem to have done.

IF that is really your ultimate goal, then I'd say, shelve the novella for now, get a new one out to your dream publisher. You can always learn something later that will allow you to fix those older stories.

And, if after doing it that way awhile, you decide you want to go ahead and try a smaller publisher, you're still free to do so.

Publishing is really in a huge state of flux. Things are changing rapidly.

Will you really be reassured about your ability to write a "good story" if your "second string publishers" accept it?

That's why I say it's hard to advise you -- it's very individual.

Anonymous said...

Thank You Susan! You have raised lot of valuable pointers that I need to ponder on.

Thanks once again :)