Readers, I want to talk to you about the rules we writers follow and the truth we try to inject into our books in the hope that we will create a book that gives you a great reading experience.
Rules are interesting little critters, aren’t they? I write quite often about rules, and about the breaking of rules, on my blog, Sling Words.
Advocated By All
Many years ago, the first so-called rule about writing that I learned was what all published writers and editors espouse: Write what you know.
I’m pretty sure all writers still hear this because I hear it when I pop into writers’ conferences. I even say it when I teach workshops and classes or write about narrative skills. Why should you write what you know? Because it gives authenticity to your words. By the way, this rule applies whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, whether it’s a book project or an article or a blog post.
Now, people who don’t write fiction think that writing what you know doesn’t apply. After all, you’re just making it up. Right?
2 Kinds of Truth
Wrong! In fiction, writing what you know means getting the facts correct in your information plot. It also means clearly presenting the underlying universal truth that is as real for an American as it is for an Italian or a Japanese.
Universal truth is the honesty and recognizable truth that makes fiction come to life. It’s what will make an editor offer you a book publishing contract or a reader buy every book or ebook you write. One might even say that writing what you know – the emotions you feel when hurt, scared, angry, or happy – is even more important in fiction because without that truth, your fiction will never succeed because readers won’t emotionally invest in the story.
Over the years, I’ve put my own spin on the “write what you know” rule. If you’ve read some of my writing how-to articles or taken a class or seen me giving a presentation at a conference, you’ve probably heard me say it this way: Write what you know or want to know. For the most part, researching and writing about a subject is a form of self-education.
I truly think if writers are interested enough in a subject to do the necessary research AND if they have the ability to articulately express ideas then they can write on a variety of subjects without necessarily being an expert. Writers should never be intimidated because they’re not experts in whatever subject they wish to use as background or as an information plot. As long as the subject interests a writer, then research deeply and learn. Writers owe that to readers.
Testing Research For Credibility
When I wrote The Trouble With Love, I knew nothing about how a small county Sheriff’s department would work. How many deputies would there be? What jobs would the deputies do? How autocratic could small town mayors be?
So I read some books written about small town law enforcement departments. I talked to my nephew who was a Sheriff’s Deputy. I looked up crime stats and also read about politics in rural areas and small towns. In other words, before I wrote a word of The Trouble With Love, Book 1 of Texas One Night Stands, I did my research to see if my heroine and my premise were credible.
The other kind of truth is the underlying emotional truth. This universal, or emotional, truth is recognizable all over the world. As I said before, this truth is as real for me as it is for a woman in the Middle East or Asia. This is what will make readers the world over want to read your work. This is the element that breathes life into fiction.
In The Trouble With Love, the heroine Susannah is damaged emotionally because her father walked out on her and her mother when she was a child. She felt that rejection in her soul, and it formed her opinion about men. Yet, as an adult, she keeps trying to make a connection with her father, a man who remains emotionally inaccessible to her.
Who hasn’t felt the sting of rejection? Who hasn’t felt bereft by the loss of love for one reason or another? That’s a universal truth. You might be able to fake expert knowledge part of the time, but you can’t ever fake emotional truth and get away with it.
Of the two kinds of truth, universal emotional truth is by far the most important. Don’t skimp on it any more than you would skimp on information research. Yes, it’s hard to tap into some emotions, but the rewards are tremendous for readers – and for you, the writer.
(Joan’s books are available at all major ebook sellers.)