If there’s one piece of advice every writer’s heard, it’s “Write what you know.”
I heard it at writers conferences when I was still an active duty military officer, hoping to publish a book. I read it in writing craft books. By the logic of “write what you know,” I should be writing Clancy-esque techno-thrillers, or Baldaccian political spy novels. After all, I spent twenty years as an Air Force intelligence officer, including tours at the National Reconnaissance Office and with a fighter squadron in South Korea, and liaising with Hill staffers as the Military Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force.
If I’d followed the standard writing advice, I’d be writing about spy satellites instead of mall cops, military ops instead of ballroom dancing, and Capitol Hill shenanigans instead of murder investigations. The trouble was, writing about my “day job” didn’t interest me.
I didn’t discard the idea of “write what you know” without due consideration. I was savvy enough to know that being able to say I was a military intelligence officer writing spy novels would make for effective marketing. However, I still wasn’t interested in telling those stories. Knowing I’d have to jump through security hoops to publish a novel that touched on national security topics was also a deterrent. Additionally, I didn’t want to risk revealing classified information. When you’ve been steeped in it for 20 years, it’s hard to remember where you got a particular piece of data—did snippet of knowledge X come from an open source, or from a highly classified document?
So, I had to think about what else I “knew.”
I knew people and emotions and relationships—the heart of the kind of stories I wanted to tell.
I wanted characters to be the focus of my novels, not technology, and not the impending destruction of the planet via weaponized anthrax. However, another thing I knew was analysis, courtesy of my military career. And I used analytical techniques to engineer mystery plots with twists and turns and surprises. It’s worked out okay for me—eighteen published mysteries set in the worlds of beauty salons, ballroom dancing, a PI firm, malls, and small-town Colorado (and most of my reviews mention the excellent plotting)!
What I’ve learned is that you don’t need to be a slave to advice, even good advice. Sometimes, what’s right for 99% of the population isn’t right for you. If you know accounting but you want to write about 18th-century brothels, well, that’s what research is for. Or if you know gardening, but want to write hard sci-fi, well, that’s what an imagination is for.
That goes for all writing advice. You’ve heard that agents hate prologues or that stories shouldn’t open with dialog or that a horror-romance-sci fi novel is sure to fail? Take that information into account, but don’t be a slave to it.
Let the needs of your story and your own passions drive your writing.
That’s where original and true stories come from, not from formulas and guidelines and market research.
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