“Write what you know” is one of the most fossilized commandments of How To Write. Sometimes writers take it too literally. They think they have to be “method actors”, immersing themselves in roles before they can sit down at the keyboard and make their characters come alive. It doesn’t have to be that intense. I didn’t have to be a soapmaker to write about a character who’s a soapmaker (Amanda in Captain Sinister’s Lady), but I did have to do research on how soap was manufactured in the early 19th century.
Yet there is something to be said for “write what you know”, and we should always keep this in mind. For one thing, you know more than you think and you should use it. I may not have known at the outset how to make soap, but I knew what it smelled like to unwrap a fresh bar. I also knew the gliding feeling of working up a lovely lather and what happens when you have soap that smells like almonds, or sandalwood, or roses, spreading its fragrance through a room. That too is writing what you know–incorporating all the sensual details of your life into your writing.
And this is leading me back to my original thought behind this blog entry. When I started writing my first novel, Pirate’s Price, it was set in England because, well, gosh, every historical is set in England unless it’s a US civil war story, right?
So I’d be sitting out there on my back porch, thinking about writing Regency London, when what I really wanted to do was describe how a clear February day in Florida gives you a sky so blue it makes your eyes hurt, how the red hawk in the tree bordering our yard was calling out its kee-yar cry, and how my neighbor’s orange trees were perfuming the entire block.
I wanted to write about what I knew–the North Florida landscape I’d lived in for over 30 years. So I did. I took trips to St. Augustine and walked the streets of the Ancient City, toured the Castillo de San Marcos, went to Fernandina to research its pirate history, and visited the various springs, rivers and geological sites that figure in my work.
It was fun, and it helped me give my writing an air of authenticity that I believe does spring from writing what you know–how something smells, how it feels, how it grows, how it sounds, what’s in bloom at certain times of the year, and when you would have a character attend a cane grinding.
When I had my heroine make a persimmon cake in Smuggler’s Bride, it was because I’d purchased some ripe persimmons at the farmers’ market and ended up using them in a spice cake (recipe upon request [g]), so I was “writing what I knew”.
Even if your story is set in a solar system far, far away, you can write with this kind of authenticity. You can describe the foods your characters are eating, the fabric of their clothing, the sights they encounter based on your own experiences. Each writer must in her own way incorporate her life experiences into her writing, because when it comes down to it, we’re all “writing what we know.”