Write what you know—we’ve all heard this advice, for good reason. Some people are able to write helpful how-to books that provide needed guidance for readers. Others write memoirs that captivate audiences. What they knew was useful and enticing.
Regarding novels, however, sometimes a writer’s knowledge base, although fascinating to some, does not draw a large audience. In that case, the what you know theory can lead authors down one of two unfortunate paths: the path of failure or the path of fear. The first path is taken by the person who adheres to this advice completely. This person writes a novel filled with information about something she knows. Sadly, that “something” does not interest anyone. When the agencies do not reply or the self-publishing sales are non-existent, this author is baffled. “What happened?” the author might wonder. “I followed the advice; I wrote about what I know.” The other path is taken by the person who is fearful of the failure path. This person is fully aware that writing about what she knows would lead to a boring book that no one would want to buy. So she does nothing at all.
It doesn’t have to end this way! With some adjustments, these misguided writers could journey down a new path, the path of a successful storyteller.
WHAT YOU KNOW
Writing about what you know provides a basis for your story. It gives you a level of comfort and provides details about the character that just can’t be found through research. Whether you are familiar with the workplace, home life, setting, or hobby, you can create a springboard for your story by writing about what you know. Your knowledge is the foundation; it is not the entire story. Once you have a solid foundation, anything can happen!
Let’s use my job as an example. I am an editor at WordsRU.com. So I could write a story about a woman who works for an international editing service. Due to my knowledge base, I am able to write about my character’s day-to-day schedule, her relationship with her co-workers and chief editors, and her actual method of editing and processing the work. I know what would frustrate my character, as well as what would motivate her. Already, I am off to a great start!
If I only wrote about a woman who edited essay after essay and story after story, however, most readers would quickly fall asleep. (In which case, I could market my book as a self-help: How to Fall Asleep Quickly) There must be a twist. Something unexpected must happen to my character in order to provide the entertainment. In order to create the twist, I think about my job, and consider what-ifs. Several possibilities occur to me:
• One of the documents to be edited includes secret government information. The client was killed for that information, and now my character is the only one who knows about it. She suddenly finds herself fighting for her life, running from unknown adversaries…
• One of the documents to be edited is a memoir. The details of the author’s life exactly match the details of my character’s life. Is the author another version of my character, from another dimension? Or is it a strange hoax? My character must uncover the truth, because in Chapter 10, the author’s life takes a drastic turn…
• My character quickly climbs the editing ladder, gaining the trust of the chief editors and, unfortunately, the resentment of her co-workers. Someone sabotages her editing pieces and sends her threatening emails. While my character tries to determine which of her co-workers is responsible, she finds herself falling in love with one of them, a new editor named Trent. He has promised to do all he can to help her solve this dilemma. But he may be part of the problem…
Of course, the twist will probably take you into unfamiliar territory. You may have to do some research or conduct some interviews, but at least you will have made a strong start. And there is nothing wrong with moving into unfamiliar territory; your character will be doing the same thing!
• Use your knowledge base as the foundation of the story.
• Create a list of the myriad, unexpected events that could occur.
• Choose the what-if that speaks to you.
• Conduct research to move your character into the unknown.
• Captivate your audience with intriguing, believable events.
As you can see, once you have that familiar foundation, you just need to add a twist to thrust your regular life into new and unchartered territory!