Loree Lough

With nearly three million books sold, best-selling author Loree Lough’s titles have earned 4- and 5-star reviews and dozens of awards. Reviewers and readers alike call her “a gifted writer whose stories touch hearts and change lives.” Her 9/11 novel From Ashes to Honor (#1 in First Responders series, Abingdon) hits bookshelves to coordinate with the 10th anniversary of the tragedy. Loree lives near Baltimore and loves spending time at her teeny tiny cabin in the Allegheny Mountains, where she loves to show off her talent for correctly identifying critter tracks. Visit Loree at http://wwwloreelough.com.

Loree's Lough Down

Write What You Know...or Not

Lately, I’ve received more e-mails than usual about the how-to-get-published advice known worldwide as “Write what you know.”

For example:

Hey, Loree: You have a long list of published books, and they’re all over the map: historical, contemporary, kids stuff. Help me understand how you followed the “write what you know” principle, because, frankly, I don’t see it. (Emory S., Joliet, IL)

Dear Ms. Lough: As a fan of yours who is trying to break into print, I’m hoping you can elaborate on the “write what you know” rule. How did you incorporate the rule into your work? (Florence B., Salisbury, MD)

Loree—I read recently that Hemingway coined the phrase “write what you know.” Can you share with me your insights on how that works? Thanks! (Barbara Kay T., Santa Rosa, CA)

I can answer every writer with one word: DON’T.

That’s right. I said don’t write what you know. Take a minute to recover.

That sounds crazy and way-out, given that we all cut our authors’ teeth on the maxim. But the truth is if you write only about what you know from personal experience, you’re limiting yourself—not only in story but in ways you can touch readers, too.

Trust me, if I wrote about the life I’ve lived, you’d be yawning by page two—if not before. It’s true that not everyone you’ll meet paid her way through college crooning oldies but goodies in hotel lounges, but the stuff I know about touring the country and entertaining audiences is, in a word, boring. (Be honest, do you really want to read about how many pairs of shoes I stuffed into the steamer-trunk-on-wheels that rolled everywhere with me, or the number of guitar strings that sproinged between 9 and 2 a.m.? I didn’t think so.)

Now, if I devise stories highlighting the waitresses and salesmen and tourists who sang off-key harmony to those oldies but goodies, I have a far better chance at capturing—and holding—your attention—provided I don’t go all Dean Koontz and tuck my personal viewpoints and politics into the plotlines.

It’s a fine line we walk, crafting fiction that highlights elements and happenings that hit readers right where they live, while taking them on flights of fancy. Too much “real life” and they’ll tell their pals, “Save your money and buy the newspaper, instead!” Not enough, and they’ll have nothing—and no one—to identify with. And I think if Hemingway were here, he’d agree, unless I’ve misinterpreted his own words: “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know,” he once said, “you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.”

This is what I say to Emory (et al) regarding the whole “write what you know” issue:

Start by asking yourself why you’re writing that novel. If it’s to share your personal beliefs and opinions with readers, well, stop.

That’s what autobiographies are for. If it’s to show off every bit of information gleaned in college and grad school, add that to your blog instead of your novel. Because who wants to fork over hard-earned money—especially with the economy the way it is these days—for a lecture disguised as fiction?

Will you be required to add new facts to what you already know about your setting, time period, medical and scientific advancements that pertain to the storyline? Well, sure! Will it be necessary to interview experts who are working at your characters’ jobs so you can develop realistic characters? You betcha! But the after-effects of research is writing what you know about more than writing what you know.

Semantics? I think not. Not every writer can pen hits like The Diary of Anne Frank or the biography of Thomas Cahill. “But those books aren’t fiction!” you say. And I say, “My point, exactly.”

During my decades of teaching the how-to of this crazy craft, I’ve read hundreds of student manuscripts. Those who cling tight to the “write what you know” rule invariably produce slow-paced plots peopled by flat characters who never come alive on the pages. They’re also the ones who defend their work with comments like “But it really did happen just that way!” and “I lived it, so I know it’s true!”

Conversely, students who step out in faith, who exercise confidence in their ideas, their plots, in characters who remind readers of the guy next door or their blustery Uncle Joe? I’m often so engaged in their stories that I forget my promise to edit the work!

Write what you know...

...or write what you know about?

I guess the answer to that one will determine what readers will think about our work.


An Accidental Family