Go With What You Know?


ja-rice-portrait2“Write what you know!” You’ve probably heard the saying, intended as sound advice for anyone with literary aspirations.

Jane Austen subscribed to this idea. Me? Not so much.

Jane Austen absolutely wrote what she knew best – her own time period, her own geographical location, her own section of society, and from a woman’s point of view. Unlike so many modern “Regency” novels, Jane Austen’s aren’t overflowing with dukes and lords; they feature mostly members of the gentry class, some rich and some not – people much like those she would have met and mingled with all her life. She knew their worries and their ways, their faults and foibles.

Austen so strictly believed in writing only what she knew from personal experience that she is famous for never writing a scene between only men, reasoning that she, as a female, couldn’t possibly have an accurate idea about how men behaved when women weren’t present. It may also be part of the reason none of her novels follow her lovers into their married life. Here again, she could have no personal knowledge of how married people behave when they were alone, since she never married herself (unless you subscribe to my totally credible alternate version of her life as told in The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen).

So, if Jane Austen is my role model in all things, why haven’t I imitated her in the practice of “write what you know”? (After all, I’ve spent very little time in the UK and none at all in Regency England.) Three reasons:

  1. What I “know” best is my life and my own limited world. Well, as with most of us, the tale of my life wouldn’t really make a very entertaining book. Other than discovering a second career as a novelist, perhaps, nothing all that unusual or even especially interesting has happened to me. I don’t mean that to sound like a complaint; I’m actually grateful. I had a normal, mostly happy childhood, after which I married (again, happily) and raised two sons who turned out to be well-adjusted, productive members of society: all good, but not much drama, nothing to serve as backbone to a good piece of fiction. My “day job” isn’t a bountiful source of material either. Do you really want to read a book about how exciting the life of a dental hygienist is NOT?
  2. I subscribe more to the write-what-you-love school of thought. I don’t write what might be trendy or try to anticipate the marketplace. I write what most interests me – the sort of thing I love to read myself. It takes months to produce a quality novel, and there wouldn’t be any joy putting that much time and energy into something that doesn’t get my creative juices flowing. Passion shows and so does the lack of it. My readers may not consciously see that I have invested my heart as well as my head in all the stories I’ve written, but they would definitely notice a drop in the quality if that wasn’t true for my next book.
  3. Unlike Jane Austen, I don’t have to be limited to what I know from my own experience. Jane had little choice; she had to write about what she already knew or could find out, and her resources for finding things out were pretty limited compared to today. She couldn’t pop onto the internet to look something up, watch movies/TV shows/documentaries about life in a different social stratum, or catch a flight to visit another part of the world. The modern author can. So I am not confined to stories about people like me living in places like my home town. Not at all. The whole world is my oyster. Now if only I had a time machine too…

That being said, I have to make a few comments about the flip side, to give sort of a rebuttal to my own arguments. (Probably not good form on the debate team, but I never participated.)

Jane Austen close upI want to acknowledge Jane Austen’s creativity and innovation. She pushed the envelope of her limited world about as far as she could have – as a woman in a man’s profession, as one of the early pioneers of the novel as a literary form, and also for writing what she loved – stories centered around courtship and romance, even though she supposedly had little of these things in her own life (here again, unless you subscribe to my plausible alternate version).

As for me, I’ve broken my own pattern for my next book. Not Regency England this time. I’ve confined my story to things I know… mostly.

It’s true that there is a fantasy/time-travel element in Leap of Faith(to be released in January), but the story takes place entirely within my own lifespan and (with a couple of minor exceptions) in places I have actually seen with my own eyes. And I have to admit I enjoyed this kind of writing experience just as much or more. It was fun to send my characters to some of my favorite northwest locations (Mt. Rainier National Park, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, the Ballard locks, Seattle Center) and to speak with a lifetime of authority about the infamous Seattle rain, the lay of the land, and the look of the scenery. These things I experienced again through new eyes as I wrote.

Here’s a peek at a portion of the cover and the hunky hero of the book, Ben.


Okay, so I know what you’re thinking. No, I’ve never actually been a man or a professional athlete either. Still, Leap of Faith is definitely my most write-what-you-know book to date. Does that mean it will be my best? Maybe. You’ll have to be the judge. If it turns out that it is my best, that will go towards proving the old adage we started with.

“You know your own concerns best.” (Mrs. Jennings, Sense and Sensibility, chapter 40)

About Shannon Winslow

author of historical fiction in the tradition of Jane Austen
This entry was posted in my books, Shannon Winslow's writing, Uncategorized, writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Go With What You Know?

  1. Sheila L. Majczan says:

    I really should make a New Year’s resolution to read blogs sent via e-mail as they come into my mail box…but sometimes life…or a good book take precedence. Glad you don’t stick to that adage or we readers would be missing out on some excellence books. Hope your muse remains active as you take on a new premise for these books. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.

    • Merry Christmas to you too, Sheila. And I know all about how life complications get in the way of what we want/need to do! That’s why it has taken me so long between publications this time. But I intend to persevere.

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