The Dangers Of Writing What You Know

As writers we are all the time hearing the piece of advice “Write what you know.”  This has been variably interpreted as writing literally about your knowledge base (as in a profession, perhaps) or your emotional experiences.  And certainly having personal knowledge of these things can lend a veracity to your fiction that might not otherwise be there.

But there are actually some dangers to watch out for in writing what you know.

1) Being too mired in the technical.  Every profession has specifics and technicalities. Using SOME of these in your work for a character can add some interesting detail and flesh a character out in new ways.  But it’s also possible to go too far with this.  Massive technical infodumps.  Usage of language that means one thing in your field but something else to a lay person.  A great example of this is the word schizophrenic.  In psychology, this term has very specific meaning and connotations.  To a layperson it simply means disjointed and crazy.  Unrelated to the fiction side of things, I actually saw a commenter go totally troll on a blog post recently over the guest blogger’s bio using the word schizophrenic to describe her life, saying that it was disrespectful to all who had mental illness and yadda yadda.  Um, dude, she used the word correctly for normal people…

2) Thinking the reader will care about the nitty gritty details.  Details in this kind of sense should be used like salt.  They should enhance the flavor of the story, not overpower it.  Back when I was writing romantic suspense, I was absolutely guilty of this in the level of detail I devoted to my serial killers.  It’s a pet interest of mine, one I find fascinating, and I lost myself in those details at the expense of the story.  It led to a MASSIVE case of complicatitis that totally halted me in my tracks on more than one book.

3) Forgetting to add the details.  By the same token, sometimes we’re so USED to what we know, we forget to add in the details that would help a reader understand something.  It can be a hard line to walk.

4) Being rigid in “But that’s how its really done”.   For the sake of pacing and interest, sometimes you gotta bend the rules in how stuff is done.  The reader doesn’t care that DNA testing really usually takes weeks or months to occur.  For the sake of the pacing of the story, we gotta speed it up a bit.  I got really hung up on police and FBI procedure in my RS days too.

I got to thinking about all this on my long drive to and from the delta yesterday wherein I began thinking about the last romantic suspense I wrote and the problems it had.  I was trying too hard to develop the villain into a serial killer and weaving in all these machinations about his escalation pattern, his victims, his motivation, and it was just too much.  I know a CRAPTON about forensic psychology and forensic profiling.  And while that’s great for a certain kind of story, I let it overwhelm this one.  I’m sure if I looked back at my other work, I’d see more of the same in those books I never finished.   At the heart, this villain was a guy who killed a girl in a fit of rage/passion, and he’s spent the last 20 years trying to keep that secret.  Once I stripped away the serial killer stuff, the problems I’d been having with the plot fell away and I could see where it needed to go.  I’ve got 20 minutes worth of voice notes on my phone to transcribe about it.  No idea when the book will get finished, but at least I have the vision now. 

3 thoughts on “The Dangers Of Writing What You Know

  1. Wonderful Post and very helpful! I sometimes get lost in the nitty-gritty details and find myself loosing the story. I am also a rigid realist in my writing and having to speed up natural processes irks me, not matter how necessary I know it is. 🙂

  2. I like hearing details about things like serial killers, etc., but I know most people probably don’t. And I can see how it would bog down the story. Personally, I don’t care if DNA testing takes longer in reality; I see a book as fiction and think of it as such. But there are some people who will call you out on stuff like that, even if the change is necessary for the pacing. Historical romance writers seem to be slammed the worst. It’s all over historically incorrect details. It matters more to me that a story flows well and things happen than whether or not something is completely correct. If you write a story that I can’t put down, I won’t even notice the fudging on the details. 🙂

  3. I used to work as a legal assistant, and it would drive me crazy to watch legal shows and read books with trials. In reality, it takes a LONG time for discovery of information, witness testimony, trial preparations, and presentation, but on TV it’s all squished to 42 minutes and that includes romantic tension scenes. But yeah, fiction is, as Hitchcock said, life without the boring parts, so the dramatic license applies. Great post, Kait!

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