I’m sure you’ve heard that you should ‘write about what you know’. Sure, it works for a lot of people but the thought of it puts me to sleep.
As a kid, I despised the ‘growing up’ novels that were set for my high school English assessments. They were everyday stories about some girl’s first kiss, her moment to stand up against the mean girl and her triumph in the school fundraiser. They turned me off reading for years.
In primary school I was crazy for Round the Twist, Goosebumps and Choose your Own Adventure stories. In high school I turned to crime fiction and a few horror novels. I enjoyed stories that were a million miles away from my normal, boring life and for the most part, I still do. This is why I find, ‘write what you read’ to be much more useful advice. Or better still, ‘write whatever the hell you want’.
I tend to be a little obsessed with history and most of my writing reflects this in some form. I didn’t take history at university and my high school (which I often referred to as a ‘pov’ school) only offered modern history, which meant that I studied propaganda campaigns instead of the ancient civilisations and exotic places that really interested me.
You’ve probably also heard that you shouldn’t tackle certain kinds of stories unless you’re an ‘expert’. That you shouldn’t write a court thriller unless you’ve been working as criminal lawyer for the past twenty years.
It’s true that I’ll read a crime book by a lawyer or forensic scientist and I will immediately trust what they write. I believe the facts and details in the fiction. I trust that they are really taking me behind the scenes. Sometimes these books are amazing and other times, the lawyer, forensic scientist or rocket engineer really has no idea how to write a book. I figure the ‘experts’ are in the same situation but they have to work harder on the craft of writing than the research behind the story.
So you don’t know anything about the subject you want to write about? Join the club. How much do you think I knew about the Spanish Conquest of the Incas, or Masaii life, or left ventricle assistance devices before I put them in a story? Nothing. I had to do the research and become an expert.
Sure, I have moments when I sulk about how much research I have to do before I can even brainstorm a plot outline but I love learning about people, places and events that I knew nothing about. I also know that I would I would be bored out of my mind writing about things that I’m a ‘life expert’ in, like high school classrooms or office work. My braincells decay at just the thought of it.
Writing whatever you want is not necessarily going to be easier but it’s going to be more fun. More than anything, you want your writing to be fun. You don’t want to be spending a year writing a novel that bores you just because it’s what you know and what you think you should write.
Let’s be honest, if your manuscript hasn’t got a contract with a publishing house then it’s just a side project that you do in your spare time for free. If that side project is going to compete with a lazy day at the beach then it had better be fun.