Write what you know,” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to new writers, but not one that should be taken too literally, at least not in a factual sense. I don’t know a lot more than I do know, and if in order to write a novel I had to stick with the facts of what I know, I’d be stymied on nearly every page. It’s rather humbling how the writing process continues to highlight the many, many gaps in my knowledge of how everyday things work.
But writing also illuminates how much I do know about what I must know to write well. To write a story that matters to a reader, the story and its characters need not be factually recognizable so much as emotionally resonant with the reader. The reader must
have an emotional reaction to my characters and the reader can only do that if I, as author, know the emotional truth of my characters, what each fears and wants, loves and hates.
As authors, we know these feelings from our own experience. Perhaps we’ve never been homeless, but maybe we’ve been stranded at an airport overnight. Certainly there have been times when I’ve been afraid or felt lonely — all those pre-William Valentine’s Days without a boyfriend. I don’t have kids, but I’ve had the experience of motherhood, from a daughter’s point of view and from an aunt’s. The facts may differ, but the basic emotions are the same. It’s called empathy. It’s a skill the most successful lawyers employ every day.
A good lawyer understands a legal problem in its broader, personal context. A good lawyer knows his or her client’s goals, whether it’s staying out of jail, righting a wrong or closing a business deal. There’s often another, more fundamental or emotional goal behind the client’s apparent legal one: providing for a family, getting revenge or respect, establishing one’s professional credibility (e.g., making a quarter’s sales numbers or financial predictions.) A good result for the client is a multifaceted thing with several emotional layers.
Some literary critics like to argue about whether a woman can write effectively from a man’s point of view (although it is often presumed that a man can write a woman’s point of view with no trouble at all), or whether a white person can write from a minority’s point of view, but the bottom line is that all authors create characters much different from themselves. Writing a novel requires imagination, and the good news is, lawyers, despite their fastidiousness with the facts, have both emotional competence and vivid imaginations.
So, write what you know emotionally and learn what you need to know to write your story. Facts do play a huge role in novels. Small errors in commonly known facts undermine an author’s credibility, just like small inconsistencies in an eyewitness’ testimony undermine his or her veracity. As storytellers, we’re trying to create a believable world, a “reasonable belief” that the fictional world exists, at least for the time the reader is in it. Getting the smallest facts right is essential to creating a true fictional world.
Most lawyers can’t imagine beginning a brief without knowing the facts. Yet novelists do it all the time. Even with a very complete outline of the plot (which relatively few literary writers use), there is much to be made up — physical details of place, time and setting as well as dialect, slang and lingo.
Sure, it’s easier to write about lawyers, courtrooms and living in Chicago, but that doesn’t prevent me from taking on the challenge of writing a story set elsewhere, even places I’ve never been but at least have seen in travelogues, pictures and movies. What we need to know to write effectively about the physical details of a place are generally available to us in a wide variety of media, and today, a wealth of detail is as available as the closest keyboard.
One of the joys of writing is in the discovery of what I don’t know but need to know to write a novel. Since “Courting Kathleen Hannigan,” conveniently set in a law firm, I’ve learned how actresses warm up for auditions (“Warming Up,” forthcoming this month from She Writes Press); basic principles of meteorology (“Saluting the Sun”); the steps preparatory to a sex- change operation and the requirements for sainthood (“One for the Ark”); the effects of smoke inhalation (“Manna”); the stages and symptoms of Huntington’s Disease (“Markers”).
In my current work, I’m revisiting the early ’60s, and can find popular baby names (ssa.gov/oact/babynames/decades/names1960s.html); the weather on Christmas Day in northern Illinois in 1959 (weathersource.com); and of course the news of the day and highlights of the year, like the song, movie and political crisis or event of the year (numerous sites).
P.S. “The Battle of New Orleans” (Johnny Horton) was No. 1 and “Mack the Knife” (Bobby Darin) was No. 2; “Ben-Hur” and the Cuban Revolution by Fidel Castro.