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“Write What You Know”

By On Sep 7 2012, 8:23 am

One of the oldest pieces of writing advice is "Write what you know." It makes sense, to a certain degree: you can certainly write with passion as well as expertise on subjects you know well. But writing also requires imagination, creativity, and in some cases good research, which is why many authors can write compelling stories about places they've never been or worlds that have never actually existed.

I, however, have always preferred writing what I know. That's why I write contemporary romance. I like using settings and characters based on people and places I can at least realistically imagine. One recent weekend, I went back to my childhood hometown to visit my mom but also to hear Amy Dickinson speak about her best-selling memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville. She's the writer of the column "Ask Amy", and she grew up in a very small town about 20 miles from mine. Her book in large part is about the comforts of home, and the details about her memories growing up in a small town reminded me why I love my own.

I love my hometown because after Amy's talk, I walked out of the Methodist Church where it had been held onto the village green, which sits in the center of town, surrounded on one side by three churches and the elementary school, and the other side by Main Street and the library and the firehouse. I love my hometown because I walked to my mom's house from there, about a mile straight down Main Street. I passed the bench where I kissed my first boyfriend. I passed the house where I broke up with my second one. I passed the bank where I opened my first checking account, the clothing store where you can buy anything from gloves to overalls to a bathing suit, the minister's house, the Town Hall where I used to go with my mom when she voted. I traced the route I used to run as a member of the junior high track team, and the super-wide street where I practiced 3-point turns with my dad before my driver's test. I passed the elementary school playground where I played tag at 8 during recess and years later drank winecoolers at 21 after midnight.

It is the kind of town Norman Rockwell would have painted, where the houses built in the late 1800s are considered "not that old," where hitching posts still stand along the street, where the volunteer fire dept. floods the green for ice skating in the winter, where every summer Wednesday, people bring their lawn chairs to listen to the free concerts played in the village bandstand.

I feel most like myself in this town, like I can peel away all the layers of life that have happened since I graduated from high school and went on to college and work and marriage and life in other places. I love coming back here, and it's no wonder I write so many stories about the power of small towns. My most recent novel, Summer's Song, calls upon all these familiar elements of a small town, and when I read back through the pages, I can see my hometown rising up before my eyes. I DO write what I know, and I love what I know.

What about you?


3 Responses to ““Write What You Know””

  1. I prefer to know what I write. By which I mean I prefer to have no limits on the things I write about, but – if I decide I want to write something set in 18th Century Romania, perhaps, or on a planet in a double star system – to go and find out what there is to know about such places and times, so that I’m not writing out of complete ignorance. If I make a world up altogether I will also make up the languages, weather, terrain, cultures etc first, so that I know them before I write.

    I prefer to learn new things than write only what I know now. On the other hand, I believe that you can adapt the intimate knowledge that you have by virtue of who you are to other purposes. Eg, because of your knowledge of dynamics in small towns you could easily write about small colonies on new worlds, or what it would be like in a small subterranean city post apocalypse.

    • Phoebe Conn says:

      What a lovely description of your home town. I also grew up in a small town, a distant suburb of Los Angeles. The town has been through some hard times when the main businesses were pawn shops. Now things are looking up, they have a beautiful new Target and Cosco and the residents are very proud of the flower-lined streets. I still like to remember how quaint it was when I was growing up. It was another time and world.

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