5 Amazing Ways To Break The Writing Rules by @BarbaraDelinsky

Write about what you know. This has always been Rule #1 in novel writing. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard it, I’d be rich without having to write in the first place. And following this rule makes sense. Writing about what you know brings authenticity to one’s work. Lord knows, it’s certainly easier to write about what you know than what you don’t.

But what if you can’t? What if, like me, you’ve already written about everything you know? Or if what you know is so painful that you can’t bear to write about it? Or if what you know is your family, but its members will never speak to you again if you write about them? Of if you’re just plain bored living in your own skin day after day? What to do then?


Write About What You Don’t Know.

As irreverent as that sounds, it can work just fine. Consider these examples.

  • 1Location

Early on in my writing career, my husband and I couldn’t afford to take our kids out to dinner, much less anywhere exotic, and I was desperate to escape. So I wrote myself into countries that I wanted to visit. 

Take Brazil. Living vicariously through my female lead, I roamed lush green hills with a group of Portuguese-speaking men. Sure, one was tall, dark, and handsome – but that’s not my point. 

My point is that I’ve never been to Brazil. Since there was no Internet back then, I spent hours in the library researching the area, learning enough to be able to paint a picture with words of what I had read. The best compliments I received on this book were from people who knew Brazil first hand and said I captured it well.

More important, though, I felt I had been to Brazil, myself. In this sense, not only had I pleased my reader but I’d satisfied a personal need.

  • 2Occupation

I’m a writer. I’m a photographer. My husband and father were lawyers. I know these three fields well and have written a slew of books using them from every angle. But doing it again and again would bore my readers.

For the sake of sheer variety, I’ve had to break the rules. As a result, I’ve had the pleasure of living in different shoes, including those of an architect, a doctor, a lobsterman, a master carpenter, and, most recently, a veterinarian. Here, too, research is key. 

That said, you don’t need to talk with six architects. One or two will do. Lately, I’ve even gotten good information from blogs. The fact is, readers don’t read my books to learn how to be a lobsterman, an architect, or a photographer. Occupation is a secondary element in a novel. All I have to do is include enough about it to add interest and legitimacy to my book.

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I took the photo used for this cover!

  • 3Angst

I’ve written about women who lost their mothers as children, a family matriarch with Alzheimer’s disease, and the betrayal of friends. I know these things personally, in one shape or form, and therefore feel my protagonists’ pain on a personal level. Here, too, though, you can only wring so much out of these topics. At some point, in art and life both, you have to move on. 

So I’ve written about angst I haven’t experienced myself – the loss of a child, a near-death experience, the suicide of a friend. 

When I wrote about a character whose thirty-something sister was in a vegetative state, I found a nurse who was experienced in this and willing to work with me. Likewise, when I wrote about a character who was a paraplegic, one whose daughter was severely dyslexic, and one survived a cataclysmic accident that took the lives of others.

I’m smiling now. Reading this, you’d think my writing is gruesome. Me? The queen of the happy ending? But every novel needs a source of tension to carry the plot along. If you write more than a handful of pieces, you have to branch out. Writing about what you don’t know is a challenge, but it can be done very well.


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  • 4Point of View

The rule of writing what you know – or what you don’t, as this blog advises – applies to writing style as well. I cut my teeth in a genre that mandated books be written in the third person, from the heroine’s point of view. That was all I knew. It was all my readers knew And it was fine, until I got bored. 

Wanting something different, I wrote a book that included two points of view, both female and male. It wasn’t easy, jumping from one brain to another and back when what I knew was sticking with one. But it was satisfying enough for me to do it a second time, and a third. By the time I reached the forth, multiple points of view had actually become what I knew.

I kept writing. Book #11 became Book #18, then Book #23, and it was time to break the POV rule again. I needed a challenge. So I tried writing in the first person. I wasn’t sure it would work. Nor was my editor. But by the time I was halfway through, my doubts were gone. It worked well enough that I’ve done it many times since.

The ultimate of breaking the rule regarding POV, perhaps, was the time I wrote a novel in which the main character was in a coma for the majority of the book. After reading the proposal, my publisher was skeptical. Don’t know if this will work, she said. The rule says your main character has to be thinking and speaking. Well, my character did all those things, only in the voices of her daughters, her best friend, her ex-husband, and her art. 

I loved the challenge of this. And the resulting book, in which I broke a basic rule, turned into a breakout book for me.

A Week At The Shore by @barbaradelinsky #book #books #ebooksA Week At The Shore by @barbaradelinsky #book #books #ebooksA Week At The Shore by @barbaradelinsky #book #books #ebooks

One phone call is all it takes to lure real estate photographer Mallory Aldiss back to her family Rhode Island beach home. It’s been twenty years since she’s been gone―running from the scandal that destroyed her parents’ marriage, drove her and her two sisters apart, and crushed her relationship with her first love. But going home is fraught with emotional baggage―memories, mysteries and secrets abound.Mal’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Joy, has never been to the place where Mal’s life was shaped and is desperate to go. Fatherless, she craves family and especially wants to spend time with the grandfather she barely knows.In just seven watershed days on the Rhode Island coast three women will test the bonds of sisterhood, friendship and family, and discover the role that love and memory plays in defining their lives.

Barbara Delinsky

  • 5Marketing

New England is what I know. I’ve lived here all my life. Why ever would I use a setting in the US that other writers know far better than me? Marketing. It’s a less noble reason for breaking the rule, but it can work. My agent suggested this one. She felt that setting a book in San Francisco for a change, rather than Boston, would open a slew of promotional options that I wouldn’t otherwise have.

And it did. Between cover art, plot summary, and publicity blurbs, I was able to take my reader to new places. Moreover, my publisher was able to market accordingly. Yes, this matters. Writing is a business as well as a calling. From the business angle, breaking the rule of writing only what you know can make sense.

Much of the new fiction I read breaks rules that I haven’t. Some of these books work for me, some don’t. If you’ve grown up with these new-fiction twists and that is what you know, go for it. If you’re more of a traditionalist, you may struggle. I do feel that a first-time writer may find it easier to follow the tried-and-true rule, writing what she knows, how she knows. 

The time to branch out will come. When it does, let your imagination rule.


Boston PR firm: 30-45 minute consultation ($400 value)

via David Ratner

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Want to win this giveaway? Simply leave a comment WHY below!

All comments must be left prior to midnight on Thursday, May 7th, 2020 in order to be eligible to win. Winners for the week announced on Friday, May 8th.

Good luck!

Barbara Delinsky


Personal bios are really hard to write for those of us who make a living dramatizing bios for pretend people. Anything I write about me feels totally boring.

Bestselling author of BEFORE AND AGAIN. Brakes for squirrels, loves to read.


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Get On That, Would Ya?


  1. Ernie Fink on May 1, 2020 at 5:44 am

    I have always been fond of the idea of writing without rules. After putting some stories together in the third person, I attempted something long in the first person and really enjoyed the change. I think part of the fun in writing is going off the beaten path. I would like to continue that.

    • Rachel Thompson on May 1, 2020 at 7:53 pm

      Thanks for popping in, Ernie. Rules are rules for a reason – twisting things around is always fun. Glad you made it by and hope you’ll be back tomorrow!

  2. Russell Fellows on May 1, 2020 at 5:49 am

    I love exploring ways to break the writing rules. For me, my given genre – writing what I know would be a pretty boring book. Thankfully, my imagination has always lived a life of its own.

    As for the giveaway, I would like to win it because promotion and marketing continue to be my weak spots. I’ve read many tips/advice blogs, etc., but somehow it doesn’t click for me. I don’t think it’s a lack in the advice given, but in me visualizing how to put it all into practice. So, any new advice would be good advice. And, maybe talking to someone (or having them see what I have so far – which isn’t much) would make everything click.

    • Rachel Thompson on May 1, 2020 at 7:52 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Russell, and good luck! Keep in mind that PR is different than promotion and marketing, aka one plank of the platform. If you read through the many blog posts over the course of this two week period, you’ll learn a TON – as well as the blog posts over the last year here on my site.

      My book also walks you through quite a bit (a few challenges daily). I’ll be giving away several copies during #NaNoProMo as well.

  3. Jax Meyer on May 1, 2020 at 9:35 am

    Good examples. I’d recommend a new writer follow as many rules as possible, and only break rules with a good reason. Otherwise the book is likely to be a mess. 🙂 Or break the rules but work with a good editor to catch the problems.

    I love when books are unique, but they still need to be good stories in the end.

    • Rachel Thompson on May 1, 2020 at 7:50 pm

      Agree, always work with a good editor – regardless of how new a writer is. Barbara works with excellent editors and she’s been at this for decades. Thanks for weighing in, Jax.

  4. Justin Bienvenue on May 1, 2020 at 10:31 am

    Very good article. I like how you’re aware of what to write and what not to write but you still write what you shouldn’t. Sometimes breaking the rules in writing is necessary in order to make the most of your work. As someone who lives in New England, I’ve never written a book set here yet but I have one in mind.

    • Rachel Thompson on May 1, 2020 at 7:48 pm

      I see you, Justin, loud and clear! Glad you made it and hope to see you back tomorrow.

  5. Margay Roberge on May 1, 2020 at 10:47 am

    I like bending the rules when I write and challenging myself to write different things, things that I might never have considered doing when I was younger because I was afraid I might suck at it. Now I don’t worry about that, I just get the words down and see where they take me!

    • Rachel Thompson on May 1, 2020 at 7:49 pm

      The best way to follow our muse, right? Thanks for stopping by, Margay.

  6. Terianne on May 1, 2020 at 12:47 pm

    I struggle with POV. Reading your post made me think, that’s the next hurdle to jump over.

    I’d like to have a consultation with David Ratner because it would appear that he has green hair. Redhead Media supporting a green head. I like that.

    Ok, I guess the other reason is I need to learn the best steps to marketing myself. The writing is in good shape. PR? Not so much! 🙂

    • Rachel Thompson on May 1, 2020 at 7:48 pm

      Hi Terianne! Glad you made it over. I hope you win!

      Be sure to stop by again tomorrow to leave a comment and enter to win that giveaway also. xx

  7. Meg Stewart on May 1, 2020 at 3:40 pm

    Still trying to figure out how this NaNoProMo thing works but thank you for putting it all together!

    • Rachel Thompson on May 1, 2020 at 7:46 pm

      Hi Meg! You did it – just leave a comment and you’re entered to win today’s giveaway. See, that was easy!

      Come back tomorrow to read another expert’s blog post, leave a comment and you’ll be entered to win THAT giveaway, too. Each day through May 15th!

      Thanks for giving it a shot.

  8. Robin Pawlak on May 1, 2020 at 4:17 pm

    My novel takes place in space. Fun fact: I’ve never been there. But that’s what the internet is for, right? (Has the internet been to space?)

    This giveaway is exciting to me because I feel like I’ve done all (most?) of the things “they” say to do to sell books, and yet I’m still waiting for the Brink’s truck to pull up outside my door to unload wheelbarrows full of cash. 🙂 I know many have found success as indie writers, but I wonder how feasible it is for those of us who write for middle graders?

    • Rachel Thompson on May 1, 2020 at 7:47 pm

      LOL, who knows where the internet has been at this point, right?

      Glad you stopped by, Robin. I think we’d all love the Brinks truck to pull up, regardless of how we publish or what genre we write. Thanks for stopping by. Come back tomorrow for the next post – comment again and you’re entered to win THAT giveaway, too!

  9. Jessica Turnbull on May 1, 2020 at 11:10 pm

    This is a great post! I think a lot of authors struggle with ‘rules’ as there are so many – some that even contradict each other. I think it’s great to read about authors who aren’t worried about following the rules as long as they write what they want to.

  10. Priscilla W McCormick on May 2, 2020 at 11:31 am

    Really enjoying the tidbits about changing up POV characters! Thank you for stretching the limits of writing what you know…

  11. Marilyn Regan on May 2, 2020 at 12:05 pm

    Loved the article br Barbara Delinsky. It’s certainly beyond where I am now, but it just goes to show that the imagination is limitless. Shakespeare never left England, yet the descriptions his settings are accurate.

  12. McKenna Dean on May 3, 2020 at 7:15 am

    Whew. I have a real love-hate relationship with “write what you know.” On one level, the advice makes perfect sense, for the reasons you alluded to: authenticity that rings through the story. But as someone who lives and works in a small town with a small life, if I relied on only my personal experiences for storytelling, my stories would be very boring indeed.

    I love the emphasis you place on research! That is so true. It’s so important not only to do the work but also enlist the aid of other people: specialists in their fields, sensitivity readers, etc.

    I’ve always said in writing you’re allowed to break the rules once you understand why they are there in the first place. So this post really resonated with me. Thank you!

    As for why I’d like to win this challenge, I’m curious as to what a PR firm would say and how they could make a positive difference for me. I suspect I’m too close to the subject see what I might be doing wrong or right!

  13. Alexanndria Szeman on May 3, 2020 at 8:51 am

    The comment about “writing about angst [you] have not personally experienced” was most moving. Thank you, Barbara

  14. Michael O'Connor on May 3, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    I’ve always tried to follow the “write what you know” philosophy, but I love the concept of embracing writing what you don’t know.

  15. Crystal Jackson on May 4, 2020 at 7:55 am

    I love this! I feel like every new manuscript draws something different from me. I’m breaking rules around genre, too, and branching out in different directions. Some may resonate with readers more than others, but I don’t want to feel limited. I want to tell the story that wants to be told. So, I have 4 finished 4 romance manuscripts, am working on a family drama, ventured into magical realism, and have toyed with children’s books. I’m curious if you think switching genres should happen under a pen name. I know some authors do this. Is that a good idea, generally? Thanks for a great read!

  16. Daniella Marie Shepard on May 4, 2020 at 4:09 pm

    Great post. It really drives home the point about researching your material well. I live in Alaska, and I write about it a lot, and I still have to do a lot of research for my novels. I also write blogs about my research and post my material to help some of my author friends who don’t live here and are trying to write about parts of Alaska (past or present) It’s weird when you read stereotypes and mistakes from authors writing in other regions, who’ve never been here, and didn’t research well (if at all). Thanks again!

  17. Mata on May 4, 2020 at 5:14 pm

    I’m juggling many creative projects but want to hone in on finding an audience for my writing. Because my work is so multifaceted, the idea of breaking the rules when I’m writing appeals to me a great deal, and is sparking some ideas for departures from my usual subjects and topics.

  18. Kerry McAvoy on May 4, 2020 at 6:43 pm

    I love the writing prompts on how to break the rules. What creative ideas. And why not?!??!! Thank you for getting my imagination headed in some new directions. Great stuff!

  19. Beth Childress on May 5, 2020 at 11:05 am

    “…so I wrote myself into countries I wanted to visit.” I feel silly, but this fascinates me. I haven’t considered this angle before. You impressed Brazilians with your “experiences in Brazil” so you must have written yourself in quite well!

    I am also intrigued with writing yourself into experiences you haven’t had.

    These tips are rich — full of great ideas. I’m grateful to P.S. I Love You Network for pointing us your way!

    • Rachel Thompson on May 5, 2020 at 1:11 pm

      Hi Beth! Thanks soooo much! I love writing for P.S. I Love You. Great publication.

      Glad you found Barbara’s post illuminating. She’s a wonderful author. Good luck on the giveaway, too!

  20. Melissa Flick on May 7, 2020 at 6:10 am

    Fantastic post, Barbara! Love this: “The time to branch out will come. When it does, let your imagination rule.”

  21. Rachael Dickzen on May 12, 2020 at 3:40 pm

    Oh wow. I haven’t ever thought of choosing a setting for a novel based partly on marketing and promotional opportunities. I’ve gotta keep this in mind for the future!

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