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  • Writer's pictureTanis Browning-Shelp

Write what you know? Or write what you learn?

Updated: Mar 6, 2019

Tanis Browning-Shelp Boston Marathon
I've competed. But not in mountain bike racing.

I’ve heard writers debate this before. I do think about this, especially when I’m considering my next fiction-writing project.

In some ways, “Write what you know” feels restrictive to me.

When I started writing about Maryn O’Brien’s mountain-biking world, I knew about training, racing, nutrition, and coaching from my own athletic experiences, but I didn’t know much at all about mountain bike racing, or about girls’ participation in the sport.

If you’ve known something in your bones, then I do believe it gives you the potential to write about it with authenticity—perhaps a grain of truth might find its way into your writing. But experiencing something certainly doesn’t guarantee good writing.

And what about how some writers actually “collect” story ideas, bits of dialogue, and relationship dynamics/details by listening in on peoples’ conversations or observing the situations unfolding around them…and then store them up like squirrels store their nuts for use later?

I wanted to avoid people assuming that Maryn O’Brien was based on myself, or on one of my children, so I made sure to select a sport that none of us had ever done competitively. But I was definitely very curious about mountain biking. I wanted to know more about it because it seemed super scary to me and as if it would take someone quite unlike myself to pursue it. I also figured that if I was curious, then other people might want to know more about it too!

I guess you can say that I took both approaches when I wrote my series. For instance, I knew what it felt like to train hard and feel irritable when fatigued. But I didn’t know how mountain bike racing was structured, where the races took place, or what the courses were actually like.

I watched mountain bike race footage, checked out video tours of the various courses on the Ontario Cup circuit, walked some of the courses closer to home, talked to mountain bikers, interviewed officials from biking associations, checked in with race organizers and bike salespeople. I even established a relationship with a local bike store—The Cyclery—that sponsors female bike racers. It was fun discovering more about this sport and its brave athletes.

I enjoyed making the writing process a learning process. And since I’ve always liked learning new things, it kept me motivated and carried me through to the finish line. Hopefully, this excitement shone through in Maryn’s stories.

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