Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Write What You Know

I have a little leather bound book which I have filled with pieces of advice and pithy sayings over the years as I try to learn the art and craft of writing. It includes admonishments to myself such as ‘make hay while the sun shines’ (I find it hard to just sit down and write, I need cups of coffee and other distractions until half the day is gone). It paraphrases things writers have said, such as ‘I only write when I’m inspired and I make sure I’m inspired at 9am every day’ – I really like that one. My other favourite is ‘when I started to do well I thought I got lucky. Then I found that the harder I worked, the luckier I got.’ Great advice.
But the best piece of advice I found was ‘Write What You Know’ and I’d like to share my thoughts on that with you, especially if you are thinking of attempting your first Pocket Novel.
When I decided to try to write a Pocket Novel, I was overwhelmed by what I needed: a plot, subplot(s) interesting characters, character development and story arcs. I realised then that the last thing I wanted to worry about was the authenticity of my setting and other factual information such as the characters’ careers, especially over the course of 30,000 (now 50,000) words. I decided to give the heroine my own job – so she became an impassioned ecologist fighting for environmental rights against the hero, who turned out be a property developer. I wanted him to be the opposite of her so they could clash wonderfully. This story turned into my first published Pocket Novel ‘Wild For Love’. Of course my heroine Polly does things and thinks things about her job that are definitely not me but at least I didn’t have to worry about scientific accuracy and could concentrate on trying to get that elusive ‘page turning quality’ essential to romances.
You can use your career, any areas of expertise you’ve built up perhaps through hobbies and interests, and also universal themes of love, childbirth, even bereavement. If you’ve experienced them, that will come through in your writing.
It took me a long time to realise that there was a second meaning to ‘Write What You Know’ and that is, if you don’t know a subject it doesn’t mean you can’t use it but make sure you research, research and research until you do! Don’t be shy, borrow experiences from friends and family and there is always the local library and internet.
I have done this with my most recently written Pocket Novel which has been accepted for publication. I wanted my heroine Melody to be into fashions and fun clothes and accessories and live in that sort of world. So I decided she should be an up and coming fashion designer with a circle of creative friends. This was a challenge because I know nothing about that world. However, I do have a cousin whose wife is a dress designer and she was only too happy to help as most people are, if you ask them nicely.
So write what you know, and above all, just keep writing and get lucky!


  1. Great advice, thanks Carol! I just realised this morning that I'd forgotten to add this blog to the list on mine - must have missed many great posts by now.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Carol. It's easy to get bogged down with facts and lose track of the story.
    Your leather bound book sounds full of great advice.
    Looking forward to reading your latest pocket novel.

  3. Rosemary, thanks for adding the Pocketeers to your blog list.

    I certainly started out writing about situations and places I knew and I remember a Mills and Boon editor telling me once that if you live in the city in India, then somewhere in the English suburbs can appear exotic! There is so much research material at our fingertips nowadays on the net although nothing quite beats a rummage in your local library as far as I'm concerned. Cara Cooper

  4. Great advice - I always think my job (teaching assistant) isn't exciting enough, but really it give me loads of material!

  5. Excellent advice, Carol. I'm drawing on some of my sister's experiences plus my home town memories for the WW2 novella I'm contemplating. Enjoying Sally's pocket novel writing forum by the way though lagging a bit because of my recent hectic social whirl! And Cara, I do agree about rummaging in the library. If you find a box of old postcards on a stall or in a charity shop, that can be a treasure chest.
    Toni aka Sandra

  6. Interesting observations, very useful to all writers. I was always told to write about what I know, if I had taken it literally there would be nowt I could write about! You are so right, it doesn't mean coast along, you do your research and then you know and what you don't know you find out.

  7. Linda - I would have thought a teaching assistant post would be a real boon - all those character studies in the making!
    I agree with all the comments on libraries and like the idea of picking up old postcards, hadn't thought of that before but will snap them up now if I see them.

  8. Great advice, Carol, and I think with your hill walking and mountain climbing experience there is enough material there for a good background to another great pocket novel.
    For me, having directed some 50 plays and playlets over the years, I particularly like to get into each character's shoes, by giving them a full history, and while I write the dialogue, I like to speak their words out loud and try to do their actions, just like I would advise actors to do on stage. For me that really works well.
    I've learned not to write too much description of the setting at the start of a novel ever since a close friend told me that if my first book hadn't been written by me she wouldn't have bothered reading beyond the first two pages!

  9. Some interesting comments. I'm late posting after an awful week of computer failure, recovering stuff, (thanks to my clever husband)and deciding a new computer is inevitable. Just wanted to say I'm really thrilled with the cover of my new large print, "Ties That Bind". On my website. It's a similar sort of story to yours Carol .. someone who wants to be a fashion designer. I once taught needlework among other things and also made wedding dresses so it all came in useful. I have a collection of experts among my friends .. doctors, surgeons, midwives a solicitor and a pathologist. Amazingly useful!

  10. Helpful advice Carol, I too wrote my first story about things that I knew I made my main charecter have the same job as me. Now that I'm really into WW2 I have decided to write my next story in that setting!
    I find it does help a lot to write what you know!

    Thanks for the usefull tips, Rachel MacLean