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Should You Simply "Write What You Know"?

I am now going to give you the super-secret key to being a good writer. You will probably read it and say, “Phoo, Chapman, I’ve known that for years.” That may be, but if you are honest with yourself, you struggle with it, as I do, every time you sit down to write. Good writing is the successful communication of a truth. In retrospect, it seems self-evident, but I’ve read plenty of stories where the writer was trying to convince me that there was significance in his or her gossamer. Literary trickery can’t substitute for honesty.

Not long ago there was an article in one of the writers’ magazines that suggested writers need to work outside academia to gain a broader perspective on life and, consequently, appeal to a broader audience. This is a variant on the old “write what you know” aphorism, a statement that has become an unquestioned rule for writers along with “show, don’t tell.” I think the statement of "Write What You Know" is accurate, but I think it’s often misunderstood.

(Find literary agents for mystery novels.)

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Column by Tim Chapman, former forensic scientist for the Chicago
Police Department who currently teaches English composition and
Chinese martial arts. His fiction has been published in The Southeast
Review, the Chicago Reader, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine
and the anthology, The Rich and the Dead. His first novel is part
contemporary thriller, part historical novel and part love story:
BRIGHT AND YELLOW, HARD AND COLD (June 2013, Allium Press).

One of the fathers of the American short story, O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), held jobs as a clerk, pharmacist, draftsman, bank teller, cowboy, reporter and publisher. When the bank he had worked for accused him of embezzlement, he ran off to Honduras. He traveled extensively in South and Central America where he hung out with train robber, Al Jennings. When he heard that his wife was ill, Porter returned and, found guilty, spent three years in jail. His wife died shortly before he was imprisoned. These experiences shaped Porter’s fiction and it was in prison that he began writing the tales that made him one of the most popular authors of his day.

(Do you need different agents if you write multiple genres?)

His work is generally denigrated today for being contrived and sappy, but his life was a rich and diverse canvas of experience. Porter did not, however, write stories that were dependent on the particulars of his professions. His best stories were influenced by what his experiences had taught him. I recommend you put aside whatever prejudice you have against schmaltz and read O. Henry’s “The Green Door,” not as an example of good writing, but as a prescription for living.

There’s been a debate in recent years about the ratio of truth versus crap a writer should use when writing creative nonfiction. Memoirs like A Million Little Pieces had the publishing community in a dither, but it’s rare that one encounters discussions about truth in fiction or poetry. We assume that fiction and poetry are inventions of the author and, as such, have very little to do with truth. The best fiction and poetry, though, is brimming with truth.

If you want to write about a guy who shucks oysters for a living, you can research oyster shucking at the library, or interview an oyster shucker, or Google “oyster shucking knives” (a blogger in Massachusetts recommends OXO Good Grips knives) to find out the details of the profession. You may never have dabbed an oyster with horseradish, let alone shucked one, but you could still write a believable tale about shucking oysters. That’s just research, and journalists do it all the time. But what if your oyster shucker is in pain because the rough shells are shredding his ungloved hands? Maybe he was once a skilled surgeon whose life was ruined when his hand slipped during an operation and barehanded oyster shucking is his self-imposed penance for losing a patient. How do you get your character to communicate his guilt, despair and pain to the reader if you haven’t experienced those feelings yourself? That’s the “write what you know” part.

(Why writers must make themselves easy to contact.)

I am now going to give you the super-secret key to being a good writer. You will probably read it and say, “Phoo, Chapman, I’ve known that for years.” That may be, but if you are honest with yourself, you struggle with it, as I do, every time you sit down to write. Good writing is the successful communication of a truth. In retrospect, it seems self-evident, but I’ve read plenty of stories where the writer was trying to convince me that there was significance in his or her gossamer. Literary trickery can’t substitute for honesty.

Emotion is the product of experience. This doesn’t mean that you have to become a surgeon and mess up an operation to write the oyster shucker story (please, don’t). Like a method actor, drawing on his own experience to influence his portrayal of a character, you can draw on your own experience. Dig deep inside, find that joy, fear or pain, and examine it. Communicating it to your reader is where craft comes in.

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