But I Haven’t Been to Graceland

Post Date: June 5th, 2012

It wasn’t until I figured this out – that I didn’t have to be an expert about something to write it into a story – that I finally really understood why my teachers insisted you had to ‘write what you know.’ Write what you know – not necessarily what you yourself have experienced. What a relief to know I didn’t have to commit a murder to write about one!”
Jan Dunlap

Elvis at Graceland, 1957

“Write what you know” can be a paralyzing rule for authors. It’s a piece of advice that to some implies you must live what you write, or, be very close to events as they happen.

Then, there are those historical fiction folks–you know those researching types? They love being locked in a musty library or enslaved online. They’re special because they have to find out what they–and we–want to know about a certain period in time.

But today with easy-to-use sites like Wikipedia, Google Books, and just about any search engine, the remotest author can be in the thick of things unknown. I, for example, can tour Graceland and write about it as if I were there. “Write what you know” is really “Write what you research.”

As I revised HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT, I had my doubts about “traveling” where I had not been, but I knew I wanted Wendy and her new best friend, Tanay, to walk the rooms of The King. And while I spent time at the Wikipedia entry and on the Graceland website, I found TripAdvisor particularly helpful for my mission.

The scene needed Wendy and Tanay to take the audio tour and see interesting specifics the way these characters would. The notes from travelers did just that–raise to the fore the most intriguing and unique elements of Graceland.

Of course, as a writer or traveler you always reel with the stark contrast of reviews (“It was the best of times!” vs. “It was the worst of times!”) But overall, you get little gems of setting–the temperature, the size of crowds, the colors that leapt out, and all the details that stayed with the traveler. My favorite was one traveler’s quoting of another disappointed visitor: “Long live Elvis and his gift shops,” as apparently every display points the tourist to buy, buy, buy. I grabbed line after line from various reviews, dumped them in my manuscript, and then began to rewrite and weave a tapestry of my own visit.

What’s fun is seeing how voice informs the shortest travel review. I also had the girls stop at Earnestine and Hazel’s for a Soul Burger, so check out the variety of personalities and attitudes that characterize these Yelp.com reviews.

So for those of us who aren’t historical fiction writers or nonfiction gurus and who don’t make heavy research the first step of a writing process, I’ve found some rules to keep the process from overwhelming.

  1. Keep in mind your scene goals. There are many things that could catch the eye of a Graceland visitor, but I decided just the mansion and gravesites were needed for my scene goals. What does your character want in this scene? What are the obstacles to that want? After taking a first pass at research and integrating the details into the story, go back and revise for that scene goal. (Which is why I don’t over-research something; I fear I’ll get lost in the details on the first draft and never get back to my characters.) Like Elmore Leonard says in his ten rules for writing, “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”
  2. Not everything relates, so don’t over-research for the first draft. This is a restatement of rule #1. But for authors, it must be said. We see connections everywhere. Everything has thematic possibilities. So the slightest detail about Elvis insisting that Graceland be stocked with banana pudding, Sucrets (antibiotic version), and coconut at all times may not be relevant. (Though I did keep the banana pudding.) So this is why I spent a limited amount of time taking my “tour,” and then I backed off and wrote the scene as best I could. It’s possible the scene could get cut in this process of working with an agent. 
  3. Paraphrase. If you are going to borrow lines from even TripAdvisor, a site where no random tourist will ever hunt you down for copyright lawsuits, follow the rule of no plagiarism. I always taught my high school students: a) change 50% of the words to synonyms and b) rearrange the order. So if you grab a 10-word sentence, replace 5 of those words and reorder them. Then the details become your own.
  4. Stay calm: the research and writing don’t have to be perfect at the first pass. We want to be authentic, we want to be honest, we don’t want to make sweeping generalizations about things we don’t know. But when one can’t afford a trip to Memphis right now, take heart: there’s a lot online to peruse, there’s a lot of wisdom floating out there, and if you take your time to read, select, copy and paste, and paraphrase you’ll find that suddenly your manuscript will fill up with options. 

I still want to go to Graceland. I did, after all, obsess on Elvis for several months when he died. I claim early-in-my-life if somewhat late fanhood.

On August 16, 1977, my family and I were traveling through France. The radio chatter–“vraiment, incroyable, bah si si! The King, Elvis, est mort…” kept coming at my parents who were new to learning French. Finally my mom said, “Something must have happened to Elvis.”

At 8, almost 9, I had no idea who the man was, but once she showed me her Elvis records, I became an obsessive fan. I fell in love with his face and swore the eyes on the album cover followed me wherever I went in the room. The record player spun daily with his voice; I could sing every line to “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Wooden Heart,” and “All Shook Up.” (Check out the “Don’t Be Cruel” video for some shots of Memphis.)

Keep writing, researching, seeking. Don’t let fear of the unknown paralyze you. There’s a way through the writer’s traveling maze with our personal versions of GPS and travel guides.


  1. Hope Clark says:

    Very nice visual post, Lyn. You are so right. We have the means to write what we do not know.

    Hope Clark
    Lowcountry Bribe
    Bell Bridge Books

  2. Thanks, Hope. And may the scene I wrote leave a visual in the reader’s mind!