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?
BREAK THE RULES.
As irreverent as that sounds, it can work just fine. Consider these examples.
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.
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.
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.
THRU MAY 15
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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.
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.
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.
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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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Rachel Thompson is the author of newly released BadRedhead Media 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge: How to energize your book sales in a month - created to help authors market their book. She is also the author of Broken Places (one of IndieReader's "Best of 2015" top books and 2015 Honorable Mention Winner in the San Francisco Book Festival), and the multi award-winning Broken Pieces, as well as two additional humor books, A Walk In The Snark and Mancode: Exposed. She owns BadRedhead Media, creating effective social media and book marketing campaigns for authors. Her articles appear regularly in The Huffington Post, IndieReader.com, The San Francisco Book Review (BadRedhead Says…), 12Most.com, BookPromotion.com, and Self-Publishers Monthly. Not just an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Rachel is the creator and founder of the hashtag phenomenon #MondayBlogs and two live Twitter chats: #BookMarketingChat (co-hosted with TheRuralVA, Emilie Rabitoy) and #SexAbuseChat, co-hosted with C. Streetlights and Judith Staff. She hates walks in the rain, running out of coffee, and coconut. She lives in California with her family.
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