“Write what you know.” In my fifteen years of publishing experience, I must have heard that phrase millions of times. I can’t imagine how many times you authors have heard it. But what does it really mean? Does that mean that all mystery writers must have stumbled on a dead body and all romance writers have experienced happily ever after? Nope, not at all. It also doesn’t mean that fantasy writers have relationships with vampires, shape shifters, or demons. What it does mean is that you need to have experience with at least some aspects of your book. You need to know and understand your characters; in other words, often the characteristics of a character aren’t too far outside the author’s own experiences or personality (at least in some ways), and often we find that authors set books in their hometowns or home states (Tom Perrotta). Some authors give their characters a profession that matches their own (think Kathy Reichs), while others focus on writing nonfiction—memoirs, or self-help books that they have the platform to defend.
There is one aspect of writing what you know that seems to be frequently ignored, and interestingly enough this is probably the single most important piece of knowledge that every writer should have. And that’s genre. Whether you are writing memoir, literary fiction, romance, SF, or whatever, you need to know, understand, and like the genre to truly be successful. As an agent of commercial fiction I am very lucky that people like to regularly diminish what I do and the books I represent. I suspect anyone who’s not writing literary fiction understands what I’m talking about, and I suspect that even those writing literary fiction have experienced this a few times.
I regularly receive submissions from authors who tell me sheepishly that in a different time in life they were reading such-and-such genre and thought that they could easily write that genre, so here’s the book. And years ago I was attending a small writing conference where it seemed every attendee was working on their memoir. It wasn’t long before I developed one easy question to establish whether or not I felt that memoir might be worth considering, and that was whether the author read memoirs. Do you know that not one single writer was reading or had read memoirs? Sure, some had read one or two, haven’t we all? But no one was reading them to learn what a memoir really was.
Does this mean that because you have spent the last ten years reading historical romances you can only write historical romance? Not at all. I think it’s important for all authors to stretch their creativity and explore new genres and new directions. We wouldn’t be seeing some of the exciting things we’re seeing in publishing these days, like the merging of genres, if it weren’t for authors expanding what they know and taking it in new directions, but I do think all of these authors are students of the genres they are writing in. In other words, they read the genre. Maybe you thought you were writing a fantasy only to discover it reads more like a romance. If you haven’t been reading romance, you need to do that. You need to understand what the genre offers and, most important, what the agents, editors, and readers expect. That doesn’t mean you need to copy another’s work, and it certainly doesn’t mean any of these genres are formulaic, but readers gravitate toward a genre for a reason, and as a writer it’s your job to figure out why and what you will offer them that stretches that.