There’s an age-old adage among writers, that even readers have heard ad-nauseum: “Write what you know.”

I’ve heard it all my writing life, it’s been drilled in me from day one. And for some reason, it never sticks. For some reason, when I come up with plots, they involve everything I DO NOT KNOW.

I have two theories on why this is. Either I’ve lived past lives in which I’ve known or experienced these things (Shirley McClain would probably vote for that one), or I’m a masochist (I’m positive my editor and critique partners would vote for this one).

For some reason, I’m always drawn to a Southern setting, even though my sum total of “Southern living” involves four years in Puerto Rico and seven years living in the DC/Northern Virginia area. Technically below the Mason-Dixon, both, but no true Southerner would consider either true South.

But I can’t seem to help it. In Stuck With You, my book out with Bell Bridge this month, my characters had to be Southerners. They also had to be, in order of appearance, lawyer, lawyer, doctor, architect. I’ve never been a lawyer, a doctor, or an architect. But the characters in my head demanded to be such, and so that’s what they became.

Write what I know? Right out the window.

And this is just one book. I’m also not a small-town sheriff, an FBI agent, a high-powered CEO, an animal psychologist, a florist, and any number of characters in my books.

Writing what I know just doesn’t do it for me. I want to be everything I’ve never been, through my characters. Not to mention, everything I’ve ever been isn’t all that interesting (unless you count beer-chugging champion in college, about which we will never speak again).

So in Stuck With You I went for the not knowing a dang thing about any of it. Oh, did I have to consult with experts to make sure I got details right, but for the most part, I just forged ahead and made it all up.

That’s the beauty of being a writer. You get to live the lives of people you’d like to be if you had time to be them all. And you can make up all kinds of things (like the virus that might or might not have infected the two main character in Stuck…trust me, I wish it actually existed). And you can stick to facts as often as you need to.

But I have a friend, a true Southern gentleman, who I asked to vet a book (Send Me No Flowers, coming out sometime next year from Bell Bridge) I wrote without asking a single person for help. I just wrote it, drawing on I don’t know what to make it Southern reality in a fictional town. His comment? “Darlin’, you HAD to be a Southerner in another life. Ya Yankee.”

So I’m left to wonder, do I do it because I’m a masochist, who prefers to torture herself by writing what she doesn’t know, or past lives, where she’s been all of those things my characters are, that I definitely am not in this life?

I’m pretty much siding with masochist, who doesn’t want to write what I know. I already know it. What’s so fun about that? But I’m not totally discounting Shirley McClain’s vote, either.


Trish Jensen