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Writing: Write What You Know

Writing: Write What You Know

Carol Cooper headshot

Carol Cooper, medical doctor, journalist, non-fiction writer and now successful novelist

Established non-fiction author Carol Cooper is currently deploying her medical background in her second novel, a sequel to the raunchy romance One Night at the Jacaranda. Here she exhorts fellow authors, whether indie or trade published, to keep it real by writing what they know.

“I hope you’ve done your research.”

Those six words strike terror in my heart, and not because I fear I may have skimped on hitting the books or searching Scholar Google.

Researching is fun. It’s a great distraction from writing. It can even relieve solitude. Started fantasizing about the postman? Then you should get out more, and a visit to the British Library could be just the ticket.

The snag? Authors need to know much more than they put on the page. That’s why I think it’s better to keep it real and use what you already know.

Not Just for Non-Fiction

Those who write non-fiction recognize that, though there are exceptions. A journalist once wanted my help with a feature on diseases that could be diagnosed from looking at fingernails. How far had she got? “Well, I was hoping you might get me started with a list of conditions.”

I believe that writing what you know applies to fiction too. If you glean some esoteric info on chemical engineering and plonk it into your novel about, say, a sexy engineer, it’s as obvious as a patch on an old pair of jeans.

When you really know your subject, you can seamlessly weave facts into the story and enhance the action instead of slowing it down. It’s the age-old difference between show and tell.

5 Reasons To Write What You Know

Here are five more reasons why it’s better to write what you already know:

  • Facts will be in their proper context, creating a more authentic ring
  • You’ll already have the right lingo, which is vital especially for dialogue
  • You won’t be pumping everyone you meet for information on wine-making, town planning regulations or whatever
  • You can defend yourself with authority if accused of inaccuracy
  • You could also (think Dick Francis) be building your brand
Cover of One Night at the Jacaranda

Carol Cooper’s debut novel with its new-look cover

Even if you’re not a champion jockey, your own experience, whatever it is, will interest others and give that genuine touch will transport the reader into your world. See what John Grisham did with his day job?

That’s why I’ve got a medical story-line in my romantic novel. In One Night at the Jacaranda, a young man is dying of disseminated cancer, a family doctor grapples with stress, a freelance journalist struggles to make a living, and a single mother tries to control her children.

All these people are purely imaginary, but their situations are based on what’s familiar to me, and I’m always gratified whenever readers tell me the characters feel real.

Oh, I made mistakes along the way. I know zip about railways, yet it didn’t stop me writing a children’s story about trains a few years ago. Not such a good idea.

There was also a story about student life (good), a couple of tales about cats (good-ish) and one about dogs (poor).

In non-fiction, I’ve authored books on general medical practice (good), pregnancy (good) and bringing up twins (depends who you ask).

Check What You Don’t Know

Obviously I still have to check things. For One Night at the Jacaranda, I had to verify London bus routes and bone up on tourist haunts in Barcelona, among other things.

Every writer should get their facts right. You may well think that Lewis Carroll wrote a book called Alice in Wonderland, and that Ernest Rutherford won a Nobel Prize in physics for splitting the atom. But you’d be wrong. That well-loved classic is entitled  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Rutherford’s Nobel Prize was in chemistry.

Of course, by the time you’ve looked it up, you know it. But it still won’t make you an expert on Victorian literature or subatomic particles. And that will show.

(Available worldwide, One Night at the Jacaranda is running as a Kindle Monthly Deal throughout June 2014 for just 99p – available here on Amazon.co.uk. Sorry, but it’s only in the UK – that’s Amazon’s stipulation, not the author’s!)

Have you ever been caught out by NOT writing what you know? Or do you already write what you know and would like to contribute a guest post about your experience? Please share, via the comments!

Our suggested tweet to share this post: “Authors, do you write what you know? Here’s why you should – by @DrCarolCooper https://selfpublishingadvice.org/write-what-you-know/ via @IndieAuthorALLi”

Carol Cooper

Carol Cooper is a journalist, author, and doctor. She writes for The Sun newspaper, broadcasts on TV and radio, and has a string of non-fiction books to her name including an award-winning textbook of medicine. Now Carol writes novels, her latest being Hampstead Fever, a contemporary tale of London life sprinkled with inside medical knowledge. Further titles are in progress. Her author website is www.pillsandpillowtalk.com.

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This Post Has 28 Comments
  1. I have been farming lavender for 14 years, 10 of those were extremely successful. Been trying to crawl out of a devastating crop loss from a weather event in early fall ’09, then got smacked again by bad winter this year. All of it, guideposts on the road to my long kindled passion and new career; writing about my experience and fashioning a template for many who are interested in doing the same. I know so many tricks of survival now, and am in fact creating another farm on my own land, where-as the last was a sharecrop situation on someone else’s.
    I have learned so much about these many aspects. Lavender Farming Montana Style, my first book is due out in October 2014.
    I also have become writer in residence for our local bluegrass concert series Ruby Jewel Jamboree. Bluegrass being one of my favorite music genres.
    For 18 years, on a quarterly basis I have self published Earth Nurture Newsletter; a farming/gardening/off grid living journal. It has an intimate subscribership of 60-100.
    Tho’ I do plenty of research for all these they are well known to me and come easy.
    I have a hard time thinking I could ever let my imagination run wild in writing fiction. But who knows? Then I’d have to research all the machinations…

    1. Gosh, that’s a lovely story, Lori. (I love lavender!) Good luck with the launch of your new book. By the way, it’s definitely worth joining ALLi, if you haven’t already done so, as a fast-track to learning about self-publishing and a constant source of inspiration for whatever genre you write in.

  2. Very perceptive as always, Alison. You’re right about stepping away from the rules. It reminds me of a watchmaker’s advert often seen at Geneva airport ‘To break the rules first you must master them.’ Breguet? I’m not sure. I’m damn sure there’s no point following rules slavishly, but I stick to my general belief that writing what you know usually makes for better copy. What about alternative history, science fiction, fantasy, etc? I just think of them as special cases.
    As for the age thing, I do see your point but I’m keeping any open mind for now, especially since people I now think of as ‘youngsters’ do sometimes produce terrific novels.

  3. What great comments to clever article. ‘Write what you know’ is dinned into the apprentice writer’s head by Those Who Know, along with ‘Show don’t tell’. Both of these are sound starting places, but as you mature as a writer, you develop confidence to take a few steps away from both.

    As an alternative history writer, I cannot visit the setting of my books, nor research past history which doesn’t exist. However, I researched the time at the split from standard history, the values and structure of that society plus the nearest likely geographical location. The rest has to be applied historical logic laced with imagination. Here, plausibility and anchors to things readers are likely to know, e.g. a flashing blue light means emergency services or law enforcement, are essential.

    I agree that drawing on your own personal experiences and knowledge are invaluable, which brings me to wonder if anybody under 40 can write a novel with such limited life experience…
    *ducks*

  4. That’s very interesting, Clare (not to mention both of us having twins!). I suspect you’ve really illuminated your corner of the city with your own experience of living there, and have more than done it justice in your writing. I think I got a bit distracted when you mention a murder scene as indescribably horrible. Now I’m wondering if anything is ever indescribable…

  5. Interesting debate! I write about the world I know – but not the very closest bit, the raising of twins (for example, which I have done in reality) … I write what I’m passionate about, and in my follow-up to Baby, Baby, I’m writing for the first time about the city I live in. That’s almost difficult, since I feel too close to it to think I’m really doing it justice, and because I feel as I write about it that I don’t actually know it – only my own corner of it.
    Possibly this is different depending on the kinds of stories we write: in a debate between a crime novelist and a policeman (on of those top ones…) I was very interested to note that the police guy emphasised that readers would not like to be anywhere near a murder scene, it is quite horrible always, indescribably so, and one wishes only to go home and be able to forget what one has seen, and it is not the stuff of entertainment, whereas the novelist said let crime be fiction,the punters want to read the fictionalised stuff and nobody cares whether it is accurate or not.
    (btw, I don’t read crime fiction myself!)

    1. Thank you, William. A good point. I’m also a fan off writing what you love. The enthusiasm shines through the copy, and helps keep you writing when the going is tough.

  6. Ah, thanks, Warren. I’m convinced that exposition is like strychnine, and I definitely agree with you about over-analysing. I’m more in favour of a few authentic touches that add realism, and of course these could be trickled into action or dialogue.

  7. Hi carol: I would say that you are correct in your premise, but you also need to know what you write. The answer is research, as has been mentioned above. In fiction, I don’t over analyze, and I don’t overdo the narrative exposition. Many important details and information can be more effective when they are delivered by the Action and the Dialogue.

    I wish you great Success…

    Warren.

  8. Very interesting. I’ve found the opposite if anything. My problem when I write about things I’m familiar with is that I can get too caught up in authenticity, and my need to get it “right” can get in the way of my need to get it “right for the story”. I love Mark Billingham’s take on accuracy in police procedurals in this context – basically, sod the accuracy, make it a great story or, as he puts it “it’s fiction”
    On the other hand, I think it’s crucial to write characters yo understand, whose needs and wants you can get your head around – stories fall apart most easily when actions don’t spring from believable motivations that spring from deep parts of characters. I think writing what you know – or at least understand – is crucial here, but for me personally in terms of subject matter I find it a hindrance more than a help

    1. Good points, Dan. Characterisation is the basis of all good fiction in my opinion. But I may be one of those pedantic people who have to have accuracy as well. Glaring errors ruin the whole narrative for me.
      I still think if you really know your subject, you don’t get distracted by the need to get it right. You’ve already got the knowledge,and integrated it into your everyday life, so it’s easy to create the right balance in fiction too. If that makes any sense.

      1. Absolutely it does, I guess it boils down to personality types. My first novel has a bipolar character and I couldn’t get outside of the situation enough to drive the story forward with the pace it needed so I’ve tended to stick to familiar emotions and drives in alien worlds since then 🙂

  9. Thanks, Liz. You’re right, of course, and much the same applies to fantasy genres too. Though I wonder if what you’ve experienced has led you in a particular direction in your historical fiction?

  10. Obviously when you write historical fiction you can’t just write what you know or have experienced youself. This is where one has to become an excellent researcher. I research everything very carefully from several sources and I also like to travel to the places I write about. So far I’ve been fortunate enough to do that.

  11. This is such a great post! It’s great to see an example of a woman who can take what she knows and use it for a variety of purposes. So often people think that they have to stick to doing one thing for their entire career, only to do more fun activities during retirement. You have completely squashed that assumption! Thanks for the inspiration!

  12. Great post Carol. I’m writing about my work as a Social Worker, something I did for 25 years and loved. It is so not the big bogey job that you read about and is a rich and rewarding way to spend your working life. Except for the form-filling that is, but I don’t write about that!
    I’m sure one day I’ll write about something else but for now I just have to get it out of my system!

    1. Thank you, Lynne. Yes, one does have to be a bit selective about all the rich material or else readers may nod off. I’ve left most of the medical form-filling out of my fiction too.

  13. Great post. Research can make up for a lack of real experience – as I found when ghostwriting. I learned to fake all sorts of things – intimate knowledge of locations and the mindsets of people totally unlike me. Every detail had to be respected – the kinds of words they’d use, their approach to people when they weren’t doing their work, how their work trickled into their life.
    And then there are errors of assumption – which I’m particularly glad you’ve mentioned. Here I have my training as an editor to thank – we check absolutely everything!
    Off to tweet!

  14. Excellent post! For some weird reason I decided to make one of my recent characters a mathematician. I know zilch about maths. I failed it in school. Luckily I have a friend who was really eager to help me out and supplied me with some great formulas that work really well in their context, literally and symbolically. But I do feel nervous about it. And now when I read over those sections, I get the same feeling in my gut that I did when I was in high school! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Jess. Maybe that funny feeling in the gut was a help in creating your story about a mathematician. I’m intrigued as to why you wanted that character in your novel. May have to go and read the book!

  15. Thanks Carol, as someone who loves fiction, but write mostly non-fiction; I have, without planning to, created a niche for myself by `writing what I know best` – growing up in, and experiencing the pre-civil rights south, in particular the southeast Arkansas Delta. I agree that people get a real feeling of experiencing the times and places with you. And, I think its both – the ability to put those memories on paper,, and also the fact that you actually lived them!

    1. Thanks, Janis.
      I’m sure that living through those times really helps readers have a more authentic experience.
      And a niche is what you need most when writing. It’s the Holy Grail of marketing, so well done on finding yours.

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