Writing What You Know- Or Want to Know

The other day, I was sitting in a writer’s group getting some feedback on my latest work. A fellow writer turned to me and asked, “Are you always writing about people in the arts?”

I realized the answer was “yes.” It wasn’t as though I decided that I was going to make a career out of writing young adult novels featuring characters in the arts. But so far, that’s exactly what I’ve done. Cass, the protagonist of While I Danced, is an aspiring ballet dancer. In It Should Have Been You, Clara is a high school advice columnist whose murdered twin was a piano prodigy. And in my forthcoming novel, Leisha’s Song, Leisha is an aspiring classical singer, while her love interest is a cellist. Then there’s Samantha in Deadly Setup, my work in progress. She’s the rehearsal accompanist for her school’s production of West Side Story in which her romantic interest plays the lead.

I suppose it’s not too surprising I’ve been drawn to writing about characters in the arts. Much like a retired homicide detective who writes murder mysteries, I’m writing about the world I’m familiar with. I spent much of my professional life as a dancer and spent several years teaching at a performing arts high school, followed by seven summers counseling artistically-inclined teens at Kentucky’s Governor’s School for the Arts. In one sense, these are my “peeps.” My life experiences have given me a boatload of empathy and insight into what it’s like to be passionate about an art form which often creates conflicts with peers who’d rather party than practice—not to mention conflicts with parents.

Speaking of parents, in some cases, they can be a little too involved in promoting their teens’ fledging careers in the arts (think stage mothers or dads). In It Should Have Been You, for example, Clara’s parents are so involved in promoting their prodigy daughter’s concert piano career that they mostly ignore Clara, the non-musician in the family. Then there are parental figures like Leisha’s grandfather who are eager to steer their children away from the arts toward careers with better financial prospects.

All in all, I do seem to be following that old adage about “write what you know.” But I’m also writing about young people pursuing passions in creative work that differs from my background. That’s where research comes in—talking to folks in those fields and reading about them. I’m the furthest thing, for example, from a classical singer, but it’s been fun learning about a serious singer’s training and world.

So, I think it’s a good idea to expand our horizons beyond writing about “what we know” to “what we’d like to know and imagine actually doing ourselves.” One of the reasons I loved writing about Clara in It Should Have Been You was that I enjoy reading advice columns and I’ve always thought it would be cool to write one. When I immersed myself in Clara’s world, that’s what I got to do vicariously. That’s one of the awesome perks of writing (and reading) fiction.



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