Figuring Out What You Know – a Guest Blog

April 9, 2010 | Written by admin

Occasionally I have friends come onto the blog to share a story. Here's one from a longtime buddy…

A few years back, Margaret (Meg) Chittenden wrote an article (perhaps it was a speech) now commonly known as “Leaping and Posturing.” It’s one of my favorite articles on writing and publishing. I laugh. I cry. I ponder. 

One of the lines goes like this: One of the most confusing things I heard was “Write What You Know.” My problem was that I didn’t know anything.

I understood Ms. Chittenden’s dilemma. For years I wrote on inspiration. I would see something, hear something, think something and think, “Oh, that would make a good story.” Of course some of my “good stories” only went about as far as the first paragraph before I realized I didn’t know enough about what I was writing to go any further. And so I stopped.

However, in her speech Ms. Chittenden also penned these words: I prefer to emphasize a slight change in direction from “Write What You Know” to “Know What You Write.”

And so I did what we writers call “research.” I went places. I talked to people. I scanned the Internet, buried my nose in books, and got lost between the stacks in libraries. And then I wrote. For the most part, it all worked out just fine.

Soon, however, I became restless. And a little nervous. What if, I thought, someone challenges me on what I’ve written? What if a reader comes up to me in a bookstore filled with people fighting for my autograph (It could happen!) and says, “Eva Marie, I have lived in Anytown USA and I’m here to tell you we’ve never had a street lamp in the middle of Main.” Or, let’s say, someone else said, “I’m a doctor and there is no such disease.”

I was in the middle of writing The Potluck Club series with Linda Evans Shepherd – a fun romp if there ever was one! Linda said to me (about a half dozen times) that when I wrote in the voice of my character Goldie, who is from the South, I did my best work. Well, of course, I thought. I’m from the South. I know the South, her nuances, her idiosyncrasies, her landscapes and her varying dialects. I know her heritage; it runs in my veins like thick maple syrup on a muggy summer morning laden with fog hovering low to the wet grasses … I was born there, I’ll die there, and I will be buried under a shady oak tree there.

Well, you get the dramatic point, I’m sure.

I spent some time thinking all this over. I re-read a few of my favorite Southern novels and books, researched a number of great Southern writers (most of which I hadn’t read since high school). I sat at my desk staring at photographs I found on the Internet of places and events that could only be held in the South. (You may not know this, but my granddaughter was just named Gnat Days Hospitality Princess!) I called up memories of Rattlesnake Roundups and Dinner on the Ground, riding with my friends in the back of an old pickup singing along with a CCR 8-Track while we were on our way to Brandon’s Bridge for a swim. I thought about how – even at a young age – I learned to blow a gnat or mosquito away from my face and how to catch lightning bugs in jars in the cool of a spring afternoon.

And of my family – the grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, cousins, second and third cousins, second cousins once removed – which, for the Southerner, is everything.

Then I knew what my next step would be in writing and publishing. I would be a writer of Southern fiction. After all, “the South” was what I knew …

Then a new problem arrived. What I knew got mixed up with what I remembered. Were the memories accurate? Were the fields really ripe with cotton during Thanksgiving and just when did we shell butterbeans until I thought my thumb nails would fall off?

The “write what you know” and “know what you write” came together and formed a single thought: know that when you write about the things you know, you know about the things you write about. Ironically, I was back to researching even the things I should be somewhat of an expert on.

The end result has been two books I’m proud to call my own (Things Left Unspoken, Revell, 2009 and the just released This Fine Life, Revell, 2010) and a contract to write three more. My Southern editor says the work shines. My readers email or post on my Facebook page that they felt as though they had “been there” or “did that” and those who have come to book signings smile and say, “You’ve hit your stride.”

In conclusion (for surely there has to be one), allow me to say that it’s true. It surely is. You do have you know what you write. And you should write what you know. But in the end, it’s really a little and a lot about both.

Eva Marie Everson

Guest Blogger

Posted in Career

  • patriciazell

    I agree with you, Eva. The lack of depth can be a real detriment to writing a book. Way back in the 1990′s, I thought I was ready to write a book sharing my understanding of the Bible. However, the door just wouldn’t open for me, so when I was offered a job teaching English to high school students in 2002, I grabbed it and put the book up on the shelf. Well, last year, after I finished all my tests and earned my master’s degree in order to hold on to my teaching job, I decided it was time to take my book off the shelf. I was amazed at the difference in my ability to write something that was readable–the training I took as a teacher added a lot of depth to my content. Now, I can write what I know and I know what I am writing. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • ramona

    I love Margaret Chittenden’s writing on writing, and to this day one of my favorite quotes is from her: “Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.”
    I’m glad you finally heard your “right” voice, and I’m honored to have been along on so much of that journey with you. And I’m really looking forward to This Fine Life.

  • Laura Marcella

    This is an amazing post! I usually feel a bit of an anxiety when I hear, “Write what you know.” So thanks for giving me hope that I’ll eventually hit my stride!

  • Eva Marie Everson

    The line about being “mad” is one of my favorites, too. I also love her line about “your husband finds you lying on the sofa, staring at the ceiling, and you tell him, ‘I am too working!’”
    And, of course, the line that reminds writers to jog to their mailboxes so they can say to their doctors that they DO INDEED exercise!
    Sometimes I think that everything I know about writing, I learned from that one article.

  • VictoryaRogers

    Great insight for writers Eva Marie!

  • Kathleen L. Maher

    Beautifully written. No wonder the south has so many great writers.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Theresa Lode

    What a great article. You’re at the top of my list for my next library trip. I’m a Montanan living in the south for the past five years and I know I will enjoy your insights and gain even more appreciation for the culture here. (I love that my kids have had the joy of catching fireflies….and shhhhh…don’t tell anyone, but me too.) ;)

  • Sharon A Lavy

    Thanks for having one of my favorite writing instructors on your blog.
    Can’t wait to see in in Blue Ridge Eva!

  • Amelia

    Thank you for sharing your insight, and the process of figuring out “what you know” in your own writing.
    Chip – I’m headed to the Festival at Calvin next week and found your blog through their site. I’ve been enjoying reading your posts the past week. Just wanted to say hi!

  • Nicole

    Eva, I loved Things Left Unspoken (y’all might remember that ;) ). I’ll look forward to the new release. Yeah, definitely hit your stride, Girlfriend.

  • Karen Robbins

    One of my favorite stories comes from Les Roberts, a fiction writer whose novels are set in Cleveland. He tells the story of a reader approaching him with the accusation that he knew not what he wrote. A particular restaurant where he had his detective character eat was closed on the day the character was there in the story. Les’ answer: “That’s why they call it fiction.”

  • Stevie Rey

    It took me a while to figger out what I know Chip and Eva and I found out it ain’t much! LOL! I’m a Southern writer too, Eva. I never truly found joy in writin’ til I discovered my hillbilly voice and now it’s hard fer me to write any way else. Thank y’all fer these here blogs and insights!
    Stevie Rey
    Arthur of The Hillbilly Bible

  • Marybeth Whalen

    As a fellow southern writer who has loved all southern writing since back in the 80′s (when as a high school student I discovered Lee Smith and Pat Conroy), I so appreciated this post. Lee and Pat showed me it was okay to write about the small things in life– the things I knew. That not all literary greatness belonged in NYC. Sometimes good fodder for stories can be found right outside your back door, where the lightning bugs blink and the magnolia trees shed their yellow-green leaves.
    And for those who love southern fiction and haven’t checked out
    I urge you to do so!

  • Vonda Skelton

    Great words of instruction and encouragement, Eva! Thank you. Glad to hear you’re enjoying your southern memories again. I loved Things Left Unspoken and am looking forward to This Fine Life!

  • Ellen Gee

    Eva – What a treat to see your post here. Thanks for helping this ole southern writer find her voice! You rock!

  • Maggie Brendan

    I’m so glad that you’re writing Southern Fiction. Loved the first book and looking forward to the This Fine Life. Being from the South,(GA) you made me feel right at home with this story and we share the same “language”. I had the pleasure of meeting you in GA. Even though I write historical, some day I’d like to try my hand at southern fiction. But right now, that’s way out there. :)Keep at it. I’m your fan now!

  • Eva Marie Everson

    I’m your fan too, Maggs!

  • Brandt Dodson

    I’m about as shallow as a dime, but I think there are things all of us know and about which we can write.
    We all know love, anger, envy,and hatred. We all know what’s like to be hungry, wet, tired, and cold. We all know ambition and loneliness. We all know depair.
    I once heard someone say that if we only wrote “what we know” there would be no stories about aliens storming the halls of orbiting spaceships.
    God gave us imagination and reason. Using what we DO know, we can reason/imagine our way to the next level.
    Good post!

  • HID Light

    That is a very good work. I like very much and thanks for good work.