Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Writer's Wednesday - Write What You Know


This week Jen Lewis joins us again with Write what you know—or not!

New writers are deluged with well-meant advice. One popular aphorism is “write what you know,” presumably because you’ll be less likely to make humiliating mistakes by wading into uncharted territory. Personally, I think it’s exciting to wander into uncharted territory, and to explore it and share it with readers.

Romance novels, especially category ones, are filled with wealthy tycoons, princes, sheikhs and ranchers. Do we, the authors personally know people like this? Why, of course we do. We all grew up as the daughters of millionaires and spent our teenage years jet-setting around the world mingling with the mega wealthy. That’s why we can write about it so easily.

Okay, stop laughing. No doubt many of us do have aspects of our background that help with the books—I did grow up in London and travel quite a bit, and I’ve spent my adult life in the glitzy New York city area—but most of us turn to research and imagination to make our books more exciting than our normal surroundings. After all, if we were out partying with royalty every night, we wouldn’t have time to get the books written.

My current book In the Argentine’s Bed is set in…. Argentina. Have I ever been to Argentina? I have not. In fact, the closest I have been to Argentina is Cozumel, Mexico, which isn’t at all close. I’d always wanted to write a book set in Argentina, mostly because I find the tango so sexy and enticing, and such a perfect metaphor for what we do with our books: take the characters on a tantalizing journey where they edge closer—then pull apart—all to a pulsing beat of sensuality and emotion.

The seed for this story was planted one morning while I was out walking with my friend and neighbor Ana, and she told me her family was looking into buying a small vineyard in Argentina’s wine country. Just the words “Argentina’s wine country” got my blood flowing. Tango, hot Latin hunks, and wine? I like.

It turned out that Ana’s family was originally from Mendoza, the primary wine growing region in Argentina. A little research revealed this to be an area of stunning beauty, set in the foothills of the majestic Andes mountains. The town of Mendoza itself has wide, formal streets, planned after the entire city was destroyed in a devastating Nineteenth century earthquake. The streets are also lined with aquecias. These open channels of water were invented by the ancient Indian inhabitants of the area. They still bring fresh meltwater down from the Andes to irrigate the arid plain into lush meadow and vineyard, and they burst up into fountains around the city.

To me this all sounded like perfect setting for a tale of family intrigue, drama, and smoking hot sex!

Online research revealed that the Mendoza region has become a chic new locus of cutting-edge viniculture, with top European producers and Hollywood directors buying up parcels of Andean hillside to experiment with the unique high-altitude terroir, or territory, that gives each wine its flavor. You can see some of the results at the wonderful website www.vinesofmendoza.com, which I visited frequently for inspiration and information. I had fun building my hero into one of these bold and ambitious vintners.

Blogs—like this one!—are a fantastic research tool. I visited many blogs, mostly by foreigners living in Argentina, and learned intriguing tidbits about the culture. When I start to research a book I soak up information from all directions, regardless of whether it’s directly relevant to my story. I never know what will turn out to be a nugget of inspiration for a scene or character.

Of course there is the possibility that I got something wrong. This doesn’t keep me awake at nights. I had a wonderful time writing a story that I hope will entertain readers. If someone wants to write and correct me, I’m all ears. Maybe I’ll learn something to take with me next time I set out into uncharted territory.



What do you think of the advice to “write what you know”? If you’re a writer, are you nervous about writing locales you’ve never been to? If you’re a reader, do you like exotic and unusual locations, or would you prefer to read something set in the author’s own backyard.

One person who leaves a comment will win a signed copy of In the Argentine’s Bed!

Jen
www.jenlewis.com

24 comments:

  1. Hi Jennifer:

    As a reader, I like locations that are both beautiful and exotic. If I’ve been to the location and enjoyed the locale, I am very likely to buy the book regardless of the book’s theme. I do prefer that the location take on the importance of a major character however and not just be window dressing. I feel cheated if the story could have taken place anywhere else with very little changes in the narravtive. This is especially irritating if the cover art makes a big deal of the exotic location.

    I recently read all three of Maureen Child’s wine country California King books and would really enjoy seeing how you handled your wine country romance in Argentina.

    Vince

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  2. Jen;

    Have already enjoyed "In the Argentine's Bed." Enjoyed the entire trilogy actually. I am interested in your research into wine making in Argentina. We have recently discovered good quality, but not very expensive wine from Argentina that has become our family "house wine." I have been ready category romances for longer than I care to admit to. Certainly location is very much part of the appeal. I think I know more about a number of places in our world thanks to the fiction I have read over the years. I also learned more history from historical fiction than I think I did in school.

    For any reading your blog who have not yet read In the Argentine's Bed, I would reccomend it highly.

    Cheers

    Linda

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  3. I like exotic locations as well as 'your own backyard' locations. I think the location develops as the story does and so the two become one, so to speak. Does this make sense? It does to me but my explanation might be ??? If the author uses the locale to enhance the story then any place is fine as long as the two fit together.

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  4. Great post! I love exotic locations, and I must admit I love writing ones I've been to, because I can capture the essence of a place so much more easily. But I also love writing places I haven't been to, including several fictional kingdoms... Jen, have you ever written a book set in NYC? I live in NYC too and my next book is set there, which should be interesting... I'm planning lots of research into what restaurants and hotels a billionaire might frequent... ;)

    Kate

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  5. Really interesting post, Jen!

    As a writer, I enjoy doing both. I've always wanted to see the Northern Lights, so I set my last book in Norway and had immense fun writing it. (Mind you. am even more desperate to go, now!) But equally I'm fine setting books in Norwich and Norfolk (where I live in the UK). In some respects, that's easier, because it's usually a good excuse to go to the beach with DH and the kids. (Course it's work...)

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  6. Hi Jennifer,
    I like reading about a variety of settings from exotic to a town similar to the one I live in now. The important thing for me is that the author brings that setting alive for me so that I can picture it easily.

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  7. Hi Vince, a beautiful and exotic location can be just the escape we're looking for. I often pick up a book because it's set in a location I feel like "visiting" at that moment. I find almost any location can be appealling, from from a luxurious beach resort to the bustle of a megalopolis to the quiet of an empty desert--or perhaps the Alaska wilderness.

    Hi Linda, I'm so glad you enjoyed the series! I had so much fun researching and writing these books, including drinking the wine. Somehow discovering where it comes from, and how much thought goes into every aspect of the planting and growing and picking, makes it even more delicious. Thanks for the hearty recommendtation!

    Hello Robyn, I totally agree that the location makes a big difference to a story. It can really set the tone of the book, whether there are winds howling over a lonely ranch, or water trickling in palace fountains. In fact I often come up with the location before I discover the plot and characters.

    Hi Kate! I've actually written two books set in NYC. The first book in my Hardcastle Progeny series, Millionaire's Secret Seduction, takes place mostly in Manhattan. I adore the city, especially in the summer when everything is steaming hot and throbbing with energy and excitement. Last October my book "Prince of Midtown" was the fifth book in a Desire continuity series called "Park Avenue Scandals." Naturally my hero lived in a penthouse on Park Avenue (though I admit, most of that book took place in the imaginary nation of Caspia :-) I bet you'll have a great time researching all the billionaire hangouts!

    Hi Kate (wow, I can't even call one of you guys Kate H, because you're both Kate H. I'll just go with Kate ;-) The northern lights sound so beautiful. I nearly always choose a location because I feel like going there--sometimes only in my mind. It's so much fun to be able to set of on these adventures, without breaking the bank or having to get vaccinations ;-)

    Hi Maureen, I love it when a location comes alive in a book and you almost feel like you've been there. That really draws me into the story and makes the reading journey feel like a vacation.

    Jen

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  8. I write what I know to a point. For me, it's the characters that I know (and that I hope people relate to). Pain, angst, suffering, joy, laughter, happiness...those I know. But I also write paranormal and futuristic romance, so those I have to make up. It's always a balance for me in the "write what you know" game.

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  9. I believe that "Write what you know" is one of the most misunderstood "rules" of writing in existence.

    I don't think it means that writers have to limit themselves to what they have literally said or done in their lives. I think it merely means that every story must have some sort of emotional touchstone, one that every reader can relate to.

    For example, my current WIP draws on several elements of my life: my first marriage, my long relationship after that with someone who proved less than trustworthy, the emotional fallout afterward, and finally meeting someone who truly loves me for who I am.

    Sounds like a far-fetched story, eh? LOL! I've recast all of us, set the tale in Italy (only the final part of my true-life story takes place here), and done plenty of research to make sure I hit all the right notes.

    I could have written this story even if none of this had ever happened to me (as a matter of fact, I did, just out of high school). However, it wouldn't (and didn't) ring true until I was able to add the emotional depth necessary to draw the reader in.

    Besides, if we only wrote what we really "know", there'd be nothing but stories about cashiers, stay-at-home moms and clerks, and no paranormals, sci-fi/fantasy or anything else, for that matter. There'd be no need to read, because it would all be familiar, been-there-done-that material.

    And wouldn't that be a drag?

    Ciao!

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  10. Hi Crystal, I was thinking when I wrote this post that "writing what you know" flies out the window a bit lately with all the paranormal elements around lately. Those are especially interesting, because even though they're made up (at least I hope so ::glances over shoulder::) writers still have to research what's out there because that's the existing landscape any new paranormal characters will inhabit.

    Excellent point about the emotional terrain always being familiar--people are people, regardless of the location.

    Jen

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  12. Hi Jennifer. I like exotic locales and books set in the author's own backyard. As long as the story is good, I am happy.

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  13. Hi Miss Menozzi, you're so right that we all "know" so much more than we think. It sounds like you have a lot of life experience to draw on! I think that even people who don't have a lot of real-life experience can create riveting books by using imagination and research.

    I'm so glad people are daring enough to write things outside their familiar realm. Just think about all the books there would be about writers sitting down to write a book--yawn!

    Jen

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  14. Hi CrystalGB, I agree, if a story can sweep me away, I don't really care where it's set :-) Sometimes I'm amazed by how an unappealing sounding setting can really come alive in the hands of a writer.

    Jen

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  15. As a writer, I usually stayed in my locale...until I helped another writer with learning about my area, and had such fun helping her learn. It made me step out of my comfort zone, and now I am jumping at the chance to do something so off the wall(for me). Great topic, and I'll be interested to hear what others think.

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  16. I'm a big fan of "write what you know". Credibility is very important to me. I've lived a bit of a gypsy existence in my youth, so I can usually spot when an author had glossed over details or makes obvious mistakes about a location. And being a doctor, what really gets me riled up is when people get medical stuff wrong (drugs, procedures, diagnoses, etc). I'm always impressed when writers make the effort to thoroughly research something they don't know because it shows in their work. Can't wait to read about the Mendoza wine country.

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  17. I think when you write what you know, the authenticity shines through the prose. It adds a certain amount of depth and texture to the story.

    However, it can be a lot of fun to take risks and venture forth into uncharted waters.

    Personally, I'd love to go to Argentina. I even have some family there, so I'd have a place to stay. :)

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  18. Hi Debra, How cool that looking at your own locale as a "location" rather set you free. I'm glad you got brave enough to step into new territory!

    Crista, I know just how you feel. Since I know both London and NYC very well, and they're both very popular fiction locales, I know how many times I'm scratched my head and said, "Hmm, not really!" But I usually don't let it interfere with my reading. I do adore reading a locale that the author knows very well, because they're likely to reveal details that no one else would know. I do think that can be done with research, too, but it takes a lot of time and imagination.

    Hi Cassandra! Argentina sounds fabulous. Reading about Mendoza totally made me want to move there. I think the biggest problem with Argentina for me is that it's a very nocturnal culture--people eat dinner around 10 in the evening. I'm a life-long early bird so I don't think I'd fit in too well ;-)

    Jen

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  19. I always hate the advice "Write what you know". I know it comes with good intentions behind it; it's born of the idea that a writer couldn't possibly write a realistic book if they have no knowledge of their subject.

    In my opinion, that's what research is for. Once you've researched your era/locale you know it. If everyone took the advice to write only about settings and people they're personally familiar with there would be no historical, fantasy, or paranormal fiction.

    I think my readers would die of boredom if they were forced to read about my quiet life as a housewife and mother in an ordinary Oklahoma town. Let's face it, washing dishes and changing diapers doesn't make for fascinating reading--those are the things people turn to books to escape from. ;)

    So, no, I don't take the "write what you know" idea very literally. I prefer to hope they mean, write about emotions you've experienced before, write about subjects you've researched so well you know them by heart.

    --Dara England

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  20. Hi Dara, so true about wanting to escape from the day to day stuff, not read about it! And research is so easy now, with the internet.

    I've been thinking about emotional experience, and how that informs writing, and it occurs to me that some of the most beloved writers of romance had very little experience of their own: Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. They all died young and sorely lacking in the romance department, but left stories that resonate emotionally with us many decades later. Just underscores that experience isn't everything.

    Jen

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  21. 'Write what you know' is some of the worst writing advice I've ever heard. I find it extremely limiting. Good writing involves research - and while I admit that having first hand knowledge of an exotic locale or occupation or whatever can certainly help your writing, not knowing something is only an opportunity to learn. If some of the most innovative writers out there only wrote what they knew - we wouldn't have science fiction at all.

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  22. Bernadette and Jennifer, as you can tell, I agree :-)I remember feeling very cheered when I read that Nora Roberts does all her research through reading and the internet, she doesn't interview people or go on research trips. Hasn't slowed her career down at all! Someone could have traveled all over the world, but if they don't have the imagination to convey a locale in words, it means nothing--you still need to be a writer first and foremost.

    Jen

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  23. Hi Jennifer - great blog - sorry it's late - I never got a chance to go online yesterday! It's an interesting concept "write what you know"- which as you say is a "safe" bet for new (would be) writers like me. But then how would I, as a historical writer, ever write about the great Fire Of Rome in Nero's time and how my hero and heroine fall in love amongst the back drop of the persecution of the Christians at the time? Or Regency life and the Napolionic Wars where my heroine is accused of being a French spy? Or my viking heroine who was captured after the massive viking defeat at Stamford Bridge in 1066? The answer to all the above is "we can't" - as much as I would love to travel back in time to be there and experience it that's just not going to happen so we just have to use our fertile imaginations, rely on accurate historical information (which I can get wrong believe me!) and hope our wonderful stories are full of emotion, passion and above all are a cracking good read! Best wishes Caroline.

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  24. And the winner of the copy of In the Argentine's Bed is..... Vince!

    Please email me at Jen @ jenlewis dot com to let me know where to send your copy.

    Thanks to everyone who stopped by!

    Jen

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