Write What You Know, Then Delete Half

How many times have we heard the old fiction-writing advice–write what you know? Overall, I think it’s good practice, and I wish I knew more that was worthy of writing about.

But sometimes, writing what you know doesn’t work, or can be a detriment.

Some of the things I know are too boring to write about. Who wants to read a novel about higher education administration? I can write about publishing a magazine for university alumni, about growing up in a town of 2,000 in the Deep South, about living in five different states over my career, about quilting, about adopting a stray dog, about writing speeches for a college president.

But really. Who’d want to read it? Even I find it boring.

Another thing I know a lot about: Hurricane Katrina. Lived through it. Read everything that’s been written about it.

So it was a natural for me to write about it. As I progressed through ROYAL STREET, my urban fantasy set during the immediate Katrina aftermath, however, I realized I knew too much.

I had to constantly remind myself: this is my character’s story, not mine. This is not a book about Katrina or about New Orleans; this is a completely different story that takes place in that city, in that time. I ended up cutting thousands of beautiful, heartbreaking descriptions that were simply overkill. You might read some of them here when the fifth anniversary rolls around on August 29.

It’s called research, and it’s a path marked with potential pratfalls and opportunities for ridicule. No matter how much I research the pirate Jean Lafitte or jazz great Louis Armstrong, there will be somebody out there, somewhere, who knows more than me. Yet at some point, I have to stop researching and start writing or the real experts will have nothing to ridicule.

And let’s not even talk about love scenes involving non-humans, where knowledge, research, and experience fall short. If anyone’s offering a workshop on it, though, just let me know ๐Ÿ™‚

So, what do you know? And do you write about it?

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

4 thoughts on “Write What You Know, Then Delete Half

  1. Ohhh, great post!

    I know a lot about training for and participating in endurance sports such as running, biking, inline skating….but only one of my novels has that as a focus.

    My second realm of knowledge base, which I use most in my stories, is Mental Health Therapy. I love putting that knowledge to work with my characters and some of the situations I put my characters in.

    But what was most fun for me was when I called a lock smith to talk about safes and how to break into them! My character can freeze things, so i asked him what would happen if someone froze a part of the safe…stuff like that.

    He chuckled MORE than once, but when I told him it was for a novel where my character could freeze things, he was more than happy to help me. So, research can be pretty fun some times!

  2. Oh, great one with the locksmith! I bet he loved that :-). Mental Health Therapy should give you great insight into characters–that’s a really useful knowledge base for writing, I’d think. And I’m seeing a hero with some inline skating in his background…. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. What I know – computer tech support and computer software testing. All boring.

    What do I write about? – fantasy worlds and paranormal creatures. Playing make believe is not just for little girls.

    Yes, I do research on my paranormal creatures, the houses they live in, and whatever else I don’t know anything about but sounds interesting.

    Great post.

  4. Great post! Okay what do I know… parenting, entertaining, cooking, organizing, having a few new diseases in one year (ah, the joy), real estate, mortgages, property management (are you getting excited yet?), oh and hot monogamy.

    Yup. I said it. It’s out there.

    I wrote a book about an innkeeper in a great big piece of property, where she organizes a large staff, tries to solve a murder and does it all while juggling the sexual fantasies of her guests and her monogamous marriage.

    And of course, what fun would it all be without her being a vampire?

    I wrote what I know, researched some, and made a lot of sh** up ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Writing is fun.