Write What You Know, they said…
For years I had a dream of being a proper writer. One who wrote actual books which could be bought in bookshops and which real people read. I wanted it so much I didn’t want to muck it up and stride into it unprepared. I researched so much information about the writing process in preparation for the Grand Event, hoping all of that advice might steer me in the right direction, only to the find the same piece of advice cropping up time after time.
Write What You Know!
In fact, it was spoken about so often, it achieved an elusive, almost mystical status in my mind, because, to be perfectly honest, frustratingly I had no idea what it meant.
Did it mean I should only write about my own experiences? I wanted to write romances but I was a history teacher- did anyone want to read romances about a history teacher? I certainly didn’t, nor did I want to write one. I like to escape in a book not have a busman’s holiday, thank you very much.
Or did it mean I had to bear my soul on the page, share with my shadowy, mythical readers the innermost and private workings of my mind? Lay out every secret, share my angst and problems with everyone? Again, something that was definitely not going to happened… because I’m British, and we don’t do all that touchy-feely sharing of our own emotions and we positively run screaming for the hills if anyone tries to share theirs with us. Ewwwgh! Just thinking about it makes me twitchy.
For a little while, I believed history was the answer. I have a degree in the subject. I teach the subject. Therefore, I should write about the subject. To that end I wrote two sensible history text books. While I am proud of the achievement (because I had real books to hold which I had written!), creating those books was not as fulfilling as I had hoped they would be. They were like planning lessons, something I did daily in my job, except without a noisy class full of hormonal teenagers to share it with.
For years, Write What You Know stopped me writing anything at all until I decided enough was enough. I knew what I wanted to write- Regency Romances because I loved to read them. It had nothing to do with my background in history, although I am not going to deny that has helped a great deal, I just have a thing for Mr Darcys and feisty Miss Elizabeth Bennetts. Write What You Know could sod off as far as I was concerned because it wasn’t working for me at all. I was going to do it my own way and Write What I Wanted.
So I started to write. Weirdly and to my absolute delight the words flowed. I spent over a year writing three books- none of which deserve to be published- before I wrote one I was actually pleased with. That book, That Despicable Rogue, became my debut for Mills & Boon. Since then, I have written five more, back to back like a writing machine. During which time I have finally discovered what Write What You Know really means.
It means little things actually, but mostly it means outright theft. The odd bit of dialogue I have overheard somewhere or tweeted from somewhere else. It means stealing other people’s character traits and shamelessly scratching them on the page my way. Let me give you an example. I have a daughter. I very bright, very beautiful, very tempestuous teenage daughter who can, by her own admission, be a bit of a handful. A lovely, thoughtful, funny handful- but a handful never the less. She’s also, thanks to my giant husband and his equally giant ancestors, six foot one. She loves her height now, but during those tricky years of adolescence she loathed it, which by default made her an even bigger handful! Such good times.
There’s a great character lurking in all of that angst which I pinched and adapted to form Lady Constance Stuart, the temperamental, tempestuous but internally vulnerable heroine in Her Enemy at the Altar. She’s very definitely NOT my daughter, but so many of her characteristics are that Connie was a positive joy to write because I knew how she worked. I understood her thoughts and her behaviour because I had lived through it.
The history nerd inside of me had also just seen a fabulous documentary on the Wars of the Roses which prompted me to read around the topic further. I found the fact that this epic battle for the English throne was actually created by a family feud. Two warring brothers of the king- the Duke of Lancaster and the Duke of York- decided separately that the other really was not up to being the next king. As a result, all sorts of destructive shenanigans ensued. I definitely needed to write about shenanigans! So I created two feuding families. The Stuarts and the Wincantons.
I also have a thing for Kiss Me Kate, the glorious MGM Hollywood musical adaptation based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. There is a great deal of object throwing and wordplay in that film between the diva of a heroine and the arrogantly flawed hero. Yet another thing I could shamelessly pilfer and use. I had my shrew in Constance, so I needed a hero to match her. Someone she would enjoy fighting with. A man made of seriously stern stuff but perhaps inwardly as troubled as Connie. Aaron Wincanton (I stole his surname from a lorry depot five miles from my house) had to be tall. He had to be cocky and arrogant. I made him a soldier, which allowed him to have a tortured past to go alongside Connie’s deep rooted insecurities about her looks.
Once I had my characters and my feud, I forced them to get married. It seemed the most explosive thing to do. I lit the fuse, stood back and happily watched the fireworks display. And all because I inadvertently did what I had been told to. Write What You Know…