Write what you know. (Surely, that’s a joke.)

Authentic Renoir. Girls on a Bench.

It’s been said a million times to a million writers: write what you know. Let’s hope no one takes the phrase literally. After all, think of the dead bodies mystery and thriller writers would rack up studying their craft. 

Perhaps it should be rephrased to: bring authenticity to your writing. 

Authenticity of place. If you write about a real place research authentic details. These details create a credible atmosphere. Do you have to live in the deep South to bring it to life on the page? No, not if you use details that ring true. Is it a smell, a measure of heat or cold, a local icon. Choose wisely.

Authenticity of language. How do people speak? It varies by geographic region, level of education, employment. What is the cadence? Does it change depending on who is talking to whom? Think about the specific words, call a coke a pop and I can place you within 100 miles. I remember being asked by my college roommate if I “wanted to come with?” later realizing that was a Chicago phrase. I still have to bite my lip to not reply: come with who? 

Fake Renoir. Girls on a Bench.
The shade of red on the hat is the giveaway.

Authenticity of detail. Give your undercover policeman a Glock model 17 in an ankle holster and everyone familiar with firearms will throw the book across the room (I learned this recently when a retired homicide detective said he read this detail in a book. Apparently this is a large gun and would be visible even under a jacket with most men, and is ridiculous to carry in an ankle holster. Verifying details is critical to authenticity. You don’t have to shoot the gun to know it is the right one. Talk to people. 

Authenticity of emotion. What does your character say or do when “X” happens? When they are on their deathbed, fall in love, catch a villain, lose their dog or a child falls ill? Empathy and research will light the way here. Talk to people who have experienced these situations, read first hand accounts and take the time to place yourself in the moment. 

Ditch write what you know for authenticity and you have a pathway to any story that captures your imagination. Without going out and committing any crimes…..or having to stage your own death bed scene. 

What scenes in books have captured you for their authenticity (or lack thereof!)? 

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One thought on “Write what you know. (Surely, that’s a joke.)

  1. Tracee, you are right. Authenticity is the key, not having actually experienced what we write about (thankfully). One of the things I love about Susan Hill’s writing (the Simon Serrailler police procedurals set in the UK) is how well she knows and writes a range of human emotions. Her writing is spare, but the psychology just rings true. I’m assuming she hasn’t been a police professional or a physican or a rapist. She probably hasn’t had a terminal disease or lost a spouse or a child or been held hostage. But somehow she gets under the skin of all these people. Facts about policing, quirks of language, and local customs can be researched and learned, but getting things right on an emotional level is pretty impressive.

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