You may have heard the advice— “Write about what you know.” I’ve read good arguments on this theme, both pro and con, and have come away with the thought that there’s better advice to be had. My advice is to write what obsesses you.
I’ve started a few books that were stillborn. The plots were clever, and the characters were compelling. The books never jelled. When a project involved a subject or thematic question that I could obsess over, the stories seemed to work.
Obsession is an issue or idea that intrudes and preoccupies your thoughts. Let me give you an example. When I was five years old, I saw Walt Disney’s film, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Fess Parker, who starred as Davy, looked a bit like my father. (Make whatever psychological inferences you will.) At the age of nine, I read Robert Penn Warren’s Remember the Alamo. By then, I was hooked on the Alamo story. I had a Davy Crockett shirt (at the peak of the Disney craze, fully a tenth of all children’s clothing featured Davy Crockett). As an adult, I own nearly every Alamo movie ever filmed, and a shelf full of collector’s editions of key books written on the subject. I’ve published essays, maintain friendships based on a shared fascination, and drink Fess Parker’s Pinot Noir (highly recommended).
When I decided to write a novel, I stuck with a subject I could obsess over. The Breach (Last Knight Publishing, 2002) is the Alamo story, told from the Mexican side of the conflict. Why might obsession be important to the writing process?
- Writing a novel is a long haul. If you’re obsessed with a subject, you have a better chance of sticking with the process until the novel is finished.
- Writing that fires your imagination increases the chances that the enthusiasm will end up in the prose.
- Pitching a novel involves unrelenting rejection. The Breach was turned down 103 times before I found a publisher willing to take a chance. If the book had been less of a crusade, I probably would have given up.
- Marketing a published novel is tough because selling requires social skills. What makes selling easier for a reclusive writer? An obsession, bordering on the spiritual.
Because every author is different, obsessions are diverse. Instead of a herd of writers chasing market trends, imagine books that distill the sparks animating various topics, translating those sparks into prose.
As for writing about what you know, if you obsess about something long enough, you’ll come to know it by your book’s end…