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JOAN BARTH ON: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW

September 12, 2009

Joan BarthI was always advised to “write what you know” but Sara Gruen who wrote WATER FOR ELEPHANTS never saw an elephant. I am writing about a woman in 1883 in New York City. I have no knowledge of what it was like to live in New York City in the 1880s.

I would advise you to write what you are interested in. It is not necessarily what you know. It is important that the subject turns you on. If it does, you will attract others who find it exciting, too.

Research resources are easily available. I have used the New York Historical Society, the ASPCA, the Metropolitan Transit Corporation, the New York Public Library, the City of New York Museum, Cooper-Hewitt Museum and many other sources. They all inform me of New York City life in the 1880s.

If you write for your audience but the subject fails to “hook” you, why write? For me, writing and rewriting takes a lot of time so my subject has to appeal to me. I do not take a currently popular issue and write to fill a need that is timely, but boring to me.

Why does 1883 appeal to me? It was the year my grandmother immigrated. I know very little about he but by focusing on that time period I learned, through research, what it was like to live in New York City then. I discovered what my grandmother’s life must have been. There was much prejudice about immigrants, Catholics, women, the Irish, domestic servants, intelligence (especially in women). Am I glad I didn’t live then.

I am glad I live now and I hope others will be as curious as I am in gathering information about an unknown point in time.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 27, 2009 3:58 AM

    Joan,

    It was great meeting you today. You have a great community of female writers.

    Reading your post, I feel the same way about my screenplay “Five Rites” about a woman born in New Orleans in 1919 (two years older than my paternal grand parent) who discovered what it was like to become a “modern woman” when she suddenly became younger looking and feeling aafter doing the Five Rites yoga. Sophie gets a career as a fashion designer, something Sophie Peterson gave up when she gopt married and started raising her five children. Although I was born in the mid 70’s I still have interviewed a handful of women including my grandmother for story ideas as Sophie reminisces on a simpler time when women had less career choices and pressures to earn a living if you were fortunate to have a husband with a good job. I did go to New Orleans to scout out sites for my film and was saddened that the city didn’t live up to my romantic movie image of the Big Easy. Yet the Garden District reminded me of Bucks County PA.

    Thanks again for your tips and insights.

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