Tuesday, May 6, 2014


One of the first pieces of advice that publisher Becky Coffield offers aspiring fiction writers (those who bother to ask her advice anyway) is to WRITE WHAT THEY KNOW.

"Although we do have a manuscript acquisitions editor, I peruse most of the manuscripts  we receive. Occasionally I read the entire submission; often I only read a few pages. What definitely shortens my reading time is when it becomes painfully obvious that the author does not really know what they are writing about," Coffield said.

"Being a western book publisher, the biggest offenders that I come across, of course, are people who write westerns but really have no idea about the west, about horses or riding horses, or about western culture. I've even read western books that authors have self-published and then want us to re-publish (which we don't do, by the way). There are just too many dead giveaways in most of these books that the author doesn't really know what's what. The author may love reading westerns and watching western movies, etc., but they often have no personal experience with what they're writing about."

Coffield went on to say that some people can write successfully on a topic they've not had any experience with, but it's rare. "That's why the best books are written by people who've LIVED it, or have a very close connection with the topic," Coffield said.

 "Authors need to remember, that when they're writing a western, or detective novel, or war novel, that there are people who have been there and know the subject! Researching something is NOT the same as living it. I once read a pathetic, predictable  western that actually had been published by a publishing company in England where the author used the term  'draw leather' on almost every page. I have lived in the west my entire life and heard that expression maybe once. I'm not saying an Englishman can't write a western, but I'd say he/she could probably produce a better book if they stayed local. It was painfully obvious the book was not written by a person really familiar with the culture of the west."

"This is not to say the aspiring writer can't write a great book," Coffield hastened to add. "A person just needs to write  what they know about. If you know about life in China, then center your book around that - not about someone living in Texas if you've never even been to Texas. If you've flown airplanes, base your novel around your knowledge. Better yet, write a nonfiction book about flying and airplanes!"

"In my opinion, for best results write what you know," Coffield said.

 "I think one reason Jere D. James' books are so popular is because James walks the talk. The author is western born and raised, rides horses (and a mule), and lives in Arizona. James does not set books in New Mexico or Wyoming, but the author does know Arizona, and every Jake Silver book is set in a different location in Arizona," Coffield said,"and James spends months in each location while writing the book."

Although Robert Walton, author of Dawn Drums, is not a southerner, the fact is Walton spent 36 years teaching social studies and specializing in the Civil War era. His research for Dawn Drums was extensive, and as a result his book is riveting, factual, and real. Walton is not only a speaker on the Civil War, but also participates in re-enacting and still works extensively with students on this topic .

J.R. Sanders, author of Some Gave All (nonfiction) and the two-time, award-winning The Littlest Wrangler was born and reared in Kansas, home of some of the wildest outlaws in the West. Sanders' knowledge and gut feelings for the West shows in his writing, too. His intensive research, along with a love and knowledge of all things western, makes his books hard to put down. Sanders is also a western re-enactor. He knows period correct clothing, guns of the era, etc.

Besides being a singer, songwriter, poet, and actor, Rusty Richards also rode bulls in rodeo competitions. In addition he was best friends with Casey Tibbs, whose biography Rusty wrote. His firsthand knowledge of Casey and rodeo made his book a sure-fire hit.

Finally, P.A. Arnold, author of Getting a Handle on Herpes, was able to write such a terrific book about this topic because of her own experience with genital herpes. Arnold knows how herpes sufferers feel; she knows the problems they face and the self-imposed shame most impose on themselves. This first-hand knowledge is what makes her book so very helpful to those who have this virus.


  1. JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin are lucky they started publishing their fantasy novels before anyone gave them the 'write what you know' advice. Isaacs Ashton, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and many more too numerous to mention are all in this lucky category.

    Mind you I do think I hear the Marquis de Sade saying that was exactly what he had always practised in his own writing.

    I know which I prefer to read, but I assume you go for the work of De Sade?

    1. Ouch! You brought up the one topic I avoided: sci-fi. Hawkeye, I am not a big sci-fi/fantasy fan. However, that being said, I probably have read more of Isaac Asimov than any other sci-fi writer. I stand by my premise here, however. I know Isaac could not have traveled through space, etc., but the man had three degrees in science which I think gave him the knowledge to write the books. Obviously he had a most educated imagination, too. So, you do win on this point since Asimov never left our atmosphere. As for JRR Tolkien, I read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I only know that Tolkien was a brilliant man who basically specialized in Middle English and Old English and made up languages throughout his life. I do think his whole life and where he lived contributed to his ability to write these books, which I read several decades ago and loved.

      When we discussed this blog here, we were quite divided on the subject. Perhaps I should have considered that people get their experience in many ways. I would agree with Joanne Walpole totally that imagination and writing ability are key ingredients.

      Overall, I just didn't do a good job on this blog. I did not spend the time on it that the subject deserved. I'll turn the blogging back over to Renee. But please, do not make assumptions about what I read. Thanks.

  2. In my opinion, write what you know is true, but taking it literally to mean you must have experienced it first hand is an old fashioned and narrow view. Being an author is about writing ability, imagination and knowledge. With some ability, the art of writing can be learnt. You either have imagination or you don't. Knowledge can be gained in many ways and research, when done thoroughly and used correctly, can be just as valuable as hands on experience.

    I think it's a shame Ms Coffield had a bad experience with a western published by a British publisher, but she shouldn't tar every writer with the same brush.

  3. Hi Joanne, Your point is well taken and I assure you we don't "tar every writer with the same brush." You are so right, imagination and knowledge are paramount in writing. I agree wholeheartedly. What I am thinking is we (I) did not do a very good job with this blog. I always wonder if anyone reads the blogs and after the responses to this one, I can see that some people do (or did, at any rate).

    We discussed this topic at great length here and were pretty divided on it. At least one commentator in another note to us brought up sci-fi and fantasy, both of which I avoided discussing in the blog. So, the blog is probably not our best as I really did not spend adequate time writing it, but I still feel that "experience" lends credence to a work, but you are so right that writing ability and imagination are not just important, but also necessary.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and for reminding me I need to be more considerate, and thoughtful, in what I write about.

  4. Sorry but sarcasm and rudeness are two of my traits...still I enjoyed your post and comments and this is not being sarcastic, Peace and love.

  5. I would also like to say that your blog post stirred up the debate and you have answered all the comments fairly. I don't think you did a bad job with your blog post. Quite the opposite since it stirred up this debate. Well done and thank you.

  6. I do appreciate your comments. Thank you.

  7. So you say write what you know about - when I did that back in 1965 no one wanted to know. Then I wrote a western and that was published. Never been west let alone the USA - but I've had some good teachers in writing about the west - Frank C Robertson and Louis L'Amour. Then, of course, there is O.Henry who was a rancher for a while and Frank Harris who did time as a cattleman. I don't think that Owen Wister, though, worked with cattle. And while we are on the subject I doubt very much if you have ridden the range, eaten dust on a trail drive or handled a fast draw. Two of them I haven't done - the other while not 'fast draw' I do have a Colt .45 and a LeMat. Read, learn, visualise - that is all that is needed plus a little imagination. Don't knock the English - if we hadn't have built the Mayflower - you wouldn't be where you are now.

  8. Hi Ray,

    Thanks for your comments. We got a kick out of them here. And congratulations on getting your book published! Well done.

    Well, Ray, you presume a bit too much regarding myself and my authors. For starters, before my husband and I "retired" and moved to Arizona, we raised Texas Long Horn (all registered) so I know a bit about herding cattle. I've owned and ridden quarter horses, arabs, and mules. Currently I ride a mule. As for weaponry, between my husband and me we own a small arsenal - as many in Arizona (and the West) do. My favorite handgun is actually a Taurus Judge as it can hold 45s as well as 410s. The 410 is nice ammo to use along the trail as you don't have to be terribly accurate since they are actually small shot gun shells. We do own two six-shooters but mostly have those as collector items.

    However, I am the PUBLISHER, so really I don't have to have had experience with these things (although I have had plenty). The real point here is do the authors have experience, and I can assure you that every author we publish can walk his/her talk.

    I happen to like England. I've been there twice for extended periods of time.

    I can't even begin to respond to the Mayflower issue except to say the English use to be fine sailors.

    Finally, please note that in the blog we state that some people can write successfully about things they've not experienced - but it's rare.


  9. Well there you go....I take back what I said. In my cynical old age I very often find that people who criticise had no real experience. However, your other correspondent Gary Dobbs has topped the Amazon western charts for weeks on end. I'm told that my American Civil War novel was at number 3 in some book chart.
    My favourite gun is the Lee Enfield .303 rifle - the only gun that I have ever fired. So I do know a little about guns and what they can do.
    One small point is that several of the writers who are published here are American - Chuck Tyrell hails from Arizona.
    However, there is another counter to your point. If there is a belief that we Brits shouldn't write westerns then why should we accept American authors that write or, in some cases, re-write our history? Cuts both ways.
    But your use of past tense about English sailors is interesting - seeing as how English sailors seem to win Olympic Gold and -er - helped to win the recent Americas Cup. So I reckon that they are still very fine sailors.

  10. Hello again Ray,

    I'd be most interested in reading your book about the Civil War. Just last April we published one. We are not Civil War people, but the manuscript was so engaging I couldn't resist. I learned so much it was almost embarrassing that I knew so little.

    Ray, I want to remind you that I did say a person with no personal experience COULD INDEED write a great book on a subject. "...some people can write successfully on a topic they've not had any experience with..."

    I hope you realize that Moonlight Mesa Associates is perhaps the tiniest publishing company in the entire world. I assure you that we are NOT a person's first choice when it comes to getting a book published. I recognize that people come to us when they've exhausted all other possibilities, or maybe after they've met one of our authors or a staff member. So, keep that in mind and do not take our blogs or comments too seriously. We have put some fantastic books out, which is a huge loss to bigger, and probably better, publishers, but the bottom line is, when it comes to publishers, we may be nicer to our writers than others, but we are essentially a nonentity in the publishing world.

    As for the English...I used past tense since you'd brought up the Mayflower. I concur that the British are excellent sailors. You have some of the most unpredictable rough seas around. Didn't mean to slight those folks. My husband and I lived aboard a sailboat for six year way back in the day. We traveled a total of about 25,000 miles. We got our butts kicked across the Pacific Ocean and that definitely took the stars out of my eyes about the romance of sailing. Still, we had a wonderful, unforgettable time. I even wrote a book about it that was originally published by Seaworthy Books. I reissued the book about a year ago under our imprint. We did not sail to Europe although that had been our original plan. So, I do appreciate good sailors.

  11. Rebel Run by Jack Giles is on Kindle. A brief synopsis can be found on my blog - I think I did an update in either Jan or Feb. I didn't go to this publisher - they came to me which was a pleasant surprise.
    Been nice talking to you even if it started on the wrong foot.
    My blog is brokentrails.blogspot.com

  12. Just checked....it was a March post. Followed by a short story that was broadcast on the radio....and a real experience.