Write what you know, really? – Anne A. Wilson
By Anne A. Wilson
It’s one of the oldest bits of writing advice out there – write what you know – and one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever tried to do. ♥
Before I seriously considered getting published, I had written four novels — what my agent calls my under-the-bed books — and three of these fell in the epic fantasy genre. I can tell you with certainty, I’ve never experienced such freedom in my life. No rules. No limits.
A salamander speaks? Why not? An elf bolts through a wall of stone? No problem. Wherever my brain wanted to go, I let it.
It was pure, unencumbered writing bliss.
And then, I decided to try to get something published.
But prospective agents and editors asked, “Why is your story unique and why are you the one to tell it?”
Hmm. I didn’t have an answer for what I’d already written, so I had to come up with something else.
Write what you know. Okay. In my case, I served in the US Navy. I knew I wanted to write a love story, but I thought I could give the love story a unique setting. Why not a US Navy battle group?
I patted myself on the back. Brilliant. You’ve got this.
Until I started writing. Make that flailing.
I would tap out a scene. No, no, no. That could never happen. Start again. No. That would be impossible. Try once more. No again. Not in any universe would that happen and certainly not in the US Navy.
“Are you sure you want to delete this?” the computer asked. Yes, please, and good riddance!
I came to the horrifying realization that ‘write what you know’ was hindering my every move. I couldn’t get past my knowledge. The rules and limits had returned. The laws of gravity applied again. Helicopters flew at such and such speed and no faster. Navy SEALs carried this weapon, not that one. The sky was blue, the night was black, and talking salamanders existed only in my childhood storybooks. My writing freedom had vaporized.
I was stuck. Bound by the rules. Dreams of being published? Poof! Not gonna happen.
Until my husband — thank god for my husband — came to the rescue. I think he paraphrased Tom Clancy when he said, “Just write the damn story.”
“Anne, this is fiction. No one is going to know that this helicopter can only fly at one hundred thirty knots, not one hundred fifty. And guess what? No one gives a rip, either. They only care about the story. So write it and don’t worry.”
And so, I wrote … usually biting the inside of my cheek, knowing that surely, everyone who would read this was going to call me out.
But as I went along, I started to let go. The self-imposed limits began to recede. Maybe I could write about what I knew, twisting it just a bit here, stretching it there, so the story would flow and the plot would come together, but at the same time, keeping that authentic feel.
The whole exercise turned into a cliched — yet, true — metaphor for life and also for writing. Let go. Try something new. Be bold. Push the boundaries. Heck, just re-write the rules and make them your own.
It was a struggle on many levels — I was schooled in rules and regulations, remember — but the perseverance paid off. I had found my writing freedom again.
And that dream of getting published? Well, in addition to penning love stories, I write happily-ever-afters, so I guess that worked out, too.
Anne A. Wilson served nine years of active duty service as a US Navy helicopter pilot, never dreaming she would one day write a novel based on the experience. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two children. Hover is her debut novel.