I began writing years before I ever heard the words write what you know strung together and aimed at writers. I’m awfully glad about that. I’d likely have misunderstood it.

From my very first attempt at writing fiction I immersed myself in a culture and place I’d never experienced in order to bring my characters to life. The challenge of recreating a world I’ve never seen save in photographs, or artifacts, or reenacted history, is still a huge part of what fuels my passion for fiction writing.

I love the learning!

Not only do I write about places I’ve never seen, time periods I never lived in, situations I’ve never experienced, I write about races that I don’t belong to. As far as I know….

After all the generations since the early 1600s when I’m told my ancestor at Jamestown married a Powhatan girl (not Pocahontas), I must have so little Native American blood that it really can’t matter. Yet I’m fascinated with Native American history and the history of colonial frontier settlement, and how the cultures of red and white clashed and mixed. Especially intriguing to me are those men and women, European, native, and mixed, who lived in the shifting place between their two cultures.

Slavery, and what it did to those enslaved and those doing the enslaving, is another big draw for me. I’ve never owned a slave, or been a slave. I have no direct experience.

Nor have I been a father, or a son. I’ve never even been a parent. Yet I’m drawn to deep and troubled father/son themes in the stories I write, from the first novel twenty years ago to my current work in progress. Where does that interest come from? It’s simply there, woven into the weft of me.

So I’ve become a perpetual student of the things I don’t inherently know, but can’t seem to stop writing about.

Know what you write, whatever that is. Find every means you can to immerse yourself in the subject, whether that’s a person, setting, or situation, then let your characters live those themes and conflicts that just won’t let you go. Which brings me to this:

If by write what you know we’re talking about emotions… then yes. We all know those. Love, jealousy, resentment, grief, elation, passion. I may not have lived on the frontier, or had to shoot my own supper, and skin and butcher it too, but I’ve been worried, afraid, determined, proud of an accomplishment, dashed by disappointment and failure. I’ve been in love. I’ve had my heart broken. I’ve faced death, just not by bear or panther or musket ball. Or a cruel overseer.

I can learn what I need to know to write the situations I’ve never experienced, then take what I do know–emotion–and breathe life into the characters who do what I’ve never done, see what I’ve never seen.

photo credit: WagsomeDog via Flickr

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