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Writing What You Know

How writing can inspire learning.

"Write what you know" is the general wisdom offered to beginner writers, suggesting you start from your current base of knowledge. While that can be essential advice -- especially to non-fiction writers, where expertise is all -- as a fiction writer, I prefer to rearrange those four little words to "know what you write," which gives me the perfect excuse for trying new activities or learning new subjects.It all feeds into the fiction pot -- if not in the current book, then maybe the next. It may not add much more than a few sentences to the novel, or may even just provide a trait for one of the characters, but there is almost nothing that can go to waste once it’s stored into the memory bank.

Travel provides locations and culture. Trying new sports not only increases detailed know-how of the specific activities, but can also provide interesting insights into the attitudes and confidence of other participants or spectators (not to mention providing the necessary zest to tackle the sedentary marathon of novel writing). Continued learning, whether academic or of a more practical nature such as first aid or CPR, not only boosts your knowledge, but can provide unexpected plot points as the number of threads available to weave into your story increases.

One of the most fun ways to learn is to talk to people about their work. We may well know what a person "does" for a living by the label applied to that particular profession, but how often do we really know what they do, why they do it or what they consider to be the advantages and disadvantages? If you don’t know of someone in a particular profession that you want to include in your novel, it can take some courage to ask total strangers to give you insight into their jobs. But I find that most people like the chance to talk about their work and what it means to them. If you are willing to share a particular plot point with them, they will often go out of their way to provide useful information. 

I learned early on in this process that it can be tough – on the writer, that is. It’s uncomfortable enough describing a fictional crime to a real detective, but even more so when your imagined police response, garnered from years of watching movies/TV shows and reading detective novels, is, very politely, declared to be unrealistic. For several moments after learning one of my plot points was not at all feasible, all I could think was that my previous weeks of work had all been wasted because the realistic response would not take my story in the direction I had intended. But as our conversation continued I ended up not only with a solution to that particular arc of the story, but also several more potential plot points which I had never considered.

The experience taught me that there can be quite a difference between what you know and what you think you know. And while fiction allows for creative license, to wander too far from reality in contemporary novels is likely to turn off those readers who do know the subject. So maybe that advice for fiction writers should be amended to "write what you know you know" -- not what you think you know!



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Josh Semendoff January 20, 2012 at 03:28 PM
Hey Mel, can I ask an off-topic question? How do you discipline yourself as a writer? I know writing everyday is vital but any advice on the best ways to go about doing that?
Mel Parish January 20, 2012 at 09:24 PM
Hi Josh, I wish I could say I did write every day, unfortunately other aspects of life have a habit of disrupting the flow. I think you do have to determine when you feel your creativity is at it's best and try to get some routine going at that time. At the beginning of a project or after a break it can be tough to motivate yourself to carve out the time (it's amazing how a whole host of other enticing options make themselves available at just that time period). That's the point when you have to remind yourself how important writing is to you, stick with it and allow yourself to get engrossed in the story/subject. Hopefully, soon you'll find you have a different problem altogether - how to drag yourself away from the writing and attend to everyday matters. An understanding family helps!

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