I read Jane Smiley’s The Georges and the Jewels last weekend. This is Ms. Smiley’s first novel for young people, and even the cover made me think of the old adage: Write what you know.
For me, one of the things I know is horses. I’ve been a horse person (or at least a horse-crazy girl!) pretty much for my entire life. I played with model horses as a kid; held mock horse shows on hippity-hops with my sister in the back yard; spent untold hours in all seasons hanging out at the barn with my little Arabian pony; read every Black Stallion and Marguerite Henry book I could get my hands on. You get the idea. I started riding when I was about 6 years old, and with the exception of some time off to have babies, I’ve been riding ever since.
So, although I’m not a horse trainer and I don’t make my living with horses, I have a knowledge of them and many things equine by nature of long exposure. And love.
Before I finished even the first few chapters of The Georges and The Jewels, I knew one thing for sure: Ms. Smiley is also a horse person. There is something telling in the way she writes about not only the horses in the book, but the environment and the people. Only someone with a love for these large four-legged beasts could write so viscerally about a barn or a fenced pasture or how it feels to run your hands through a colt’s sun-warmed coat on a Spring morning.
You may have seen a barn, a pasture and a colt…but until you immerse yourself in them, know them – until you open yourself up to the smells, sounds, sights, and magic of those places – your writing might just end up flatter than a writer with a deeper knowledge of their topic.
Anyone can research their writerly hearts out and put sentences, paragraphs and yes – even stories – together about a given topic. But there is something deeper than just research, isn’t there? Something deeper than just the facts and being able to string them together to show action, plot, character and description.
When you know something – really know about it in your heart – you have a level of knowledge that others can’t attain by just wishing they knew it, too. As a writer who knows about something, you have power. You will be able to convey a message or an image or a story with more power because of your knowledge and your love of the topic.
Could be baseball. Could be horses. Could be cooking or Italy or mythology or medicine. Doesn’t really matter what the topic. What matters is that the topic has touched you somehow and has had an impact on your life. If you can really feel the scalpel in your hand or the spring of the risen dough under your palm…if you can smell the vineyards in the Tuscan summer sun or tell the stories of elephant-headed gods with joy and passion…then you will, in turn, touch the hearts of your readers.
After I closed the back cover of Ms. Smiley’s book, I peeked at her bio on her website. Yep. I was right. She’s a horse person. And I, for one, hope she continues to write about these critters and how they touch our lives.
And maybe I will, too.