Rules? We Don’t Need No Stink’n Rules

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeInsecure Writers’ Support Group

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day, where members can talk about doubts and the fears they’ve conquered as well as struggles and triumphs. Alex also poses an optional question, which gives me a no-brainer topic on which to write. Thanks Alex!

The January 4 Question: What writing rule do you wish you’d never heard?

Easy breezy.

I wish I’d never heard the rule “write what you know.”

To be honest – I do not even know what this rule means. What defines “what I know”? Who decides “what I know”? How broad or narrow is this definition of “knowledge”?

Writing from only one’s personal experience is limiting and possibly not all that interesting. I’ve spent my career as a lawyer, but believe me, none of the stuff John Grisham writes about ever happened to me. I write about killers, although I, myself, have never committed homicide (yet) nor do I maintain a close acquaintance with any murderers (yet).

My current WIP includes a lawyer, a county sheriff, a reporter, a disabled woman, a homeless man, a mob guy, a realtor, and a child molester. Save lawyer and realtor, I have no personal experience being any of these personas.

I personally have known a county sheriff, a reporter, a disabled woman, a homeless man, a mob guy (he promised me a favor, which I have yet to collect on), and a child molester. But what I “know” about them is questionable – especially the child molester (an insurance agent), and the mob guy, about whom I know enough NOT to call in the favor (unless someone hurts my daughter – make no mistake – I will go to prison for her).

My lack of “knowledge” has not stopped me from mining their stories. Of course I do research on professional requirements, locales, as well as life experiences of different socio-economic groups. But in the end, my writing necessarily reflects my interpretation of that information.

Then there’s the whole “diversity” issue. Writers are implored to write with diversity, to include other points of view, experiences, voices outside of their own. But these writers are regularly pilloried because they don’t “get it right” according to another person’s point of view and knowledge. See, i.e. negative Amazon reviews for The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

The worst of it is in television and movie adaptations. Coe hates to watch police and lawyer programs with me because of my constant derision of their unrealistic depictions of those professions and characters (particularly women). I have to bite my tongue to keep from constantly shouting “objection” or remarking on how the evidence from yet another warrantless search will be excluded from trial. Where’s the “write what you know” rule for these ridiculous adaptations. And don’t even get me started on what the script writers did to Jane Rizzoli’s character.

The take away for me? I’ll write whatever I please.

I want to write about well-developed characters doing interesting things in interesting places. I make an effort to research those areas where I don’t or won’t have personal experience. I accept that those characterizations may not speak universal truths about anything. And what I “know” may or may not jive with someone else’s view of reality.

It is, after all, fiction.

* * *

Many thanks to the awesome co-hosts for this month’s blog hop:

Eva @ Lillicasplace
Crystal Collier
Sheena-kay Graham
Chemist Ken
LG Keltner
Heather Gardner

This entry was posted in Idle Threats, IWSG, Unreliable Witnesses. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Rules? We Don’t Need No Stink’n Rules

  1. Angela Wooldridge says:

    I’m pretty sure Tolkien didn’t know any elves or hobbits… 😉

    • Lee says:

      So true Angela. Thank goodness the whole of science fiction/fantasy writers ignore this rule. And cozy mystery writers – really – the same characters run into dead bodies over and over again? Pfttttt.

  2. L.G. Keltner says:

    You make some great points here. I want to include a diverse cast of characters in my stories, and since I write a lot of science fiction, I’m also writing about a lot of scenarios I know I’ll never find myself in. This means I’m not writing strictly within the bounds of what I know. If I did, my stories would be pretty dull. All we can do is use what we know as a foundation and do our best to build a great story on top of that.

    • Lee says:

      At least with science fiction, “they” can’t tell you your doing it wrong! I completely agree that we can only use our knowledge as a foundation. Thanks for your insights.

  3. Ha! My husband is a lawyer and he hates watching any of those legal shows. He’s constantly saying, “You can’t do that.” “That wouldn’t happen.” Etc.

    I don’t watch Rizzoli and Isles the TV show, but I’m a big fan of the books. 🙂

    • Lee says:

      Same as your hubby here – guilty as charged. I have mixed feelings about the R & I tv show. I’m happy for Tess Gerritson’s that her books were picked up, but not at all happy about what happened to the R & I characters. Again with the “that’s not how it happens/she looks/they talk” in the book. I am so predictable.

  4. Megan Morgan says:

    Ha! I cited the exact same rule on my blog today. Books would be terribly boring if all writers only wrote what they know. And what about things like sci-fi and fantasy? I ignore this rule completely!

    • Lee says:

      Agreed, Megan. Who died and made this stupid rule? I thought the whole point of reading was to go someplace new, see something from another point of view. I have a point of view. If I can only write some correct version from someone else’s point of view, what is the point? And what about the dragons point of view? Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I had to chuckle at some of that. I hope you never need that favor.
    My diversity writing includes a couple alien races. At least no one can tell me I’m wrong.
    Write what you want, Lee! And happy 2017.

  6. Lee says:

    Hi Alex! Thanks for facilitating this fabulous forum! I have to admit, I have this bizarre, smug feeling that a mob guy offered me a favor (I got his son out of some tax trouble – totally legit), but mostly for its story-telling effect. At least with sci/fy, the experts can’t tell you you’re doing it wrong! Thanks for stopping by.

  7. You raise some really good points in your blog post. Diversity is something I’ve been thinking about lately but unsure how to tackle it.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Ellen. It is a sticky wicket. The balance is finding a meaningful voice instead of a stereotype. But seriously, that is the challenge with all characters.

  8. Love your takeaway LOL.
    I’ve never understood this rule at all. If everyone followed it, imagine how boring books would be!

    • Lee says:

      Exactly, Julie. And as a reader, I want to be swept into an exciting, thrilling world – quite the opposite of the world I know. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Juneta says:

    I know stuff but I also don’t know a lot of stuff. If I only wrote what I knew I would be very limited.
    Enjoyed your post.
    Juneta @ Writer’s Gambit

    • Lee says:

      Thanks Juneta. My thoughts exactly. I know a little about a lot, a lot about a little, and there is still a lot I know nothing about, but want to learn about.

  10. Did you hear about the mess with S.E. Hinton? She’s getting crap because she didn’t include diversity in her books she wrote 30 years ago or so. I’m so confused as to what people expect her to do. Get in a time machine and go back and write them? Update them to be more politically correct? I can’t see that she’s written a book in 10 years or more…so why are people attacking her now? But instead of arguing the fact that they’re attacking her for books she wrote in the past, she’s focusing on the “write what you know” argument and saying she writes from her experience. I’d just drop that and say, “I can’t go back in time, so leave me alone.”

    • Lee says:

      Thanks for this example Stephanie. This is exactly the problem and a new twist on censorship. Also a good lesson in not engaging in this nonsense on Twitter (please god spare us from this becoming a substitute for actual intellectual engagement). I think you have hit on the only real response – leave it and me alone.