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Writing What I Know

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A conversation came up on the Romance board at ACFW a couple of days ago that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind—so naturally, I’m blogging about it.

One of my fellow romance writers who happens to be unmarried reported a conversation she had about books with a few other people. Apparently one mentioned that she does not read romance novels if they are written by someone who isn’t married, as single people can’t possibly know what they’re talking about when it comes to romance. Another person apparently voiced approval of this statement, adding that unmarried women who write romance are just showing their desperation to be married so much so that they have to make up stories about it—oh, and they’re ugly, too, which is why they aren’t married in the first place.

It’s a good thing that I was not anywhere near where this conversation was taking place, because I probably would have lost my religion—all over them. One of the things I am most passionate about in my life, aside from writing of course, is Singles ministry. As someone who is still single at age 35, I have experienced most of the ups and downs of the single life. And part of my passion is trying to break through the long-standing prejudice against singles in the Christian community, especially within the church congregation–but that’s not the point of this entry.

“Write what you know” is one of the most misunderstood instructions given about writing. Most people take it at face value, interpreting it as, “Write about only what you have personally done or experienced in the confines of your own life.” If fiction writers were to interpret it this way, we would eliminate entire genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical, and 99% of mystery/crime/suspense/thriller. There would be no Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk, no Luke Skywalker, no hobbits and Middle Earth, no Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, no Scarlett O’Hara, no Sherlock Holmes, no James Bond or Jason Bourne, no Superman or Batman, and no one would have ever heard of a man named Steven King.

If we wrote only about what we have personally experienced, what a boring world this would be. But God gave us imaginations with which, as the character of Chaucer (Paul Bettany) said in A Knight’s Tale, we “give the truth scope!”

Lest anyone should argue that this is un-Biblical, let me give the ultimate example. In his life on earth, Jesus grew up in a small town and learned the trade of a carpenter from his stepfather, Joseph. Yet he crafted stories of farmers, of masters, of vineyard owners, of slaves, of widows, of husbands and wives, of profligate young men who ran away from home—of people whose lives and experiences were vastly different from his own.

I have chosen romance as my genre. I love the process of crafting my characters and taking them through the intricate dance that is the progression of their relationship. And as we discussed whether or not singles are fit to write romance novels, a very important thought struck me:

Romance novels are about SINGLE people! Yep, you read that correctly. Think about it. With the exception of two small subgenres (romance in marriage and stories featuring extramarital affairs), romance novels feature as their main characters two UNmarried people facing and dealing with everything that comes along with being SINGLE. And for me, being unmarried and having lived by myself for more than ten years, I find it very easy when I read romance novels to determine if the author was married at a very young age or if she experienced some of what it is to be a single adult out on her own in this world. Those who married later—in their late twenties or after—have a much more authentic voice when creating their characters’ SINGLENESS than those who married straight out of high school or college.

Those who married later as well as those who are unmarried know the loneliness that can creep unawares from our subconscious to our conscious mind and hit us like a Mack truck—even when we’re at the top of our game or feeling the most confident we ever have. They know what it’s like to be the “sole supporter” of our household—having to provide for all of our own needs with no relief of someone else to share the burden (unless there’s a roommate in the situation, but that brings its own inherent problems). They also understand, especially when writing characters over the age of 30, it’s not necessarily “romance” we desire most—not the flowers, fancy dinners, or quoted poetry (although we still like all that)—it’s a longing for companionship, for support, for understanding, for someone to walk with hand-in-hand down whatever is left of life’s road. Someone to help us pay the bills. Someone to comfort us when facing the illness or death of a loved one. Someone to help us take care of our aging parents. Someone to be there when the rest of the world seems to shut us out. Someone to start our car and scrape the ice from the window on a winter morning, or to make our favorite dinner at the end of a long, hard day.

Yes, many of us who are single writing romance novels do so because we desire to experience the fulfillment of our soul’s longing for that companionship. We also write romance because we are in love with falling in love. We write it in reaction to relationships we’ve experienced, or as a “what if” scenario after a chance encounter. We write it to counter the rejection we have experienced in our lives.

A question we single-writers-of-romance have for those who see our writing romance as a sign of our desperation to be married, what, then, does that say about married women writing romance? Do they desire to not be married and go through meeting someone and falling in love again? Are they writing them because they are discontent with their own husband and are desperately living out their fantasies of being married to someone else?

Of course not! Like the singles who write romance, they write it because they, too, are in love with falling in love, or because of past relationship experiences, or because of the wonder they experienced in their own path to marriage.

Therefore, when I write romance, I’m writing what I know. Not because I’m married or even in a relationship. But because I have been in love. Because I know the longing for companionship. And because I have the experience of the ultimate “romance”—Jesus’ love for me.

Oh, and one final thought . . . most people, whether readers of romance or not, when asked what the greatest romance novel ever written is, will most likely answer either Pride & Prejudice or Jane Eyre–both of which were written by SINGLE women!

One Comment
  1. Jennifer permalink
    Wednesday, September 20, 2006 11:34 am

    HI! So I know you don’t know me. I was at your Thesis reading this past June at Seton Hill. It was my first residency. I really enjoyed your reading and your story (the small bits that you shared)

    Love your post. I don’t write romance (children’s fiction), but I agree with you on practically all of your points. You have to be married to write romance is one of the wackiest ideas I’ve ever heard! Great post.


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