By Steve Berry
How many times have you heard this piece of advice: write what you know. On its surface, the old adage makes sense. Writing is difficult enough, why compound it by attacking a subject matter with which you are not familiar. Writing what you know also brings an ability to insert personal insights that those ‘who-don’t-know-what-you-know’ might find interesting.
But it’s the worst advice you could ever receive.
Never, ever write what you know.
Instead, write what you love.
If what you love and what you know is the same thing, then you’re truly blessed. But if not (which is normally the case) always write what you love.
I was a trial lawyer for 30 years. I handled thousands of divorces, criminal defense, and civil litigations. So many cases and clients. A zillion fascinating stories. Here’s an example: I once represented a man charged with murder. He stabbed his victim multiple times, and then cut the head and hands off to hamper identification (this was back before DNA testing). So how did they make an identification? Apparently while cutting off the hands and head, the accused forgot to notice the victim’s T-shirt. On it was written in bold letters jones family reunion. Talk about stupid. How long do you think it took to make an ID? The whole thing was an open and shut case and the DA wanted the death penalty. But all my client cared about was whether his name had been spelled right in the paper. That’s it. For him it was all about the spotlight. Talk about a character for a novel. But the last thing in the world I wanted to do was write about him.
I love action, history, secrets, conspiracies, and international settings. That used to be called a spy novel, now it’s an international suspense thriller. I read anything and everything I can in this genre. The first manuscript I ever wrote, though, was a legal thriller—that was me foolishly practicing the rule of ‘writing what you know.’ But I learned never to do it again. I realized that I read spy novels (as they were called then) to escape the torturous world in which I lived each day. Hearing people’s problems, then trying to solve them is a lawyer’s job. But it gets depressing. You need a way out, if only temporary. Stories with action, history, secrets, conspiracies, and international settings provided that respite for me.
So I switched genres and kept writing.
Eventually, after 8 manuscripts, 12 years, and 85 rejections Random House bought The Amber Room. Yes, there are lawyers in that book, but not a one of them is doing a lawyerly thing. Instead, they’re all off on an international treasure hunt, in a fictional world I love.
There have been 13 novels since The Amber Room. The latest is The Patriot Threat. The books are now published in 51 countries and 40 languages, with nearly 20,000,000 copies. Everyday I marvel at how that came about, grateful for every single reader who takes the time to enjoy them.
And if years ago I’d kept writing what I know?