Writing Rules Made to Be Broken: Stay Close to Home

There's a distinctly rebellious air about the Muse and the Marketplace Conference this year. Come April 6-8 at Boston's Park Plaza, #Muse18 presenters will be letting loose on the writing rules that have held our manuscripts hostage for far too long. To kick off the conversation ahead of the Muse weekend, this year's Muse series explores the writing, publishing, and workshop rules, conventions, and accepted norms that authors, agents, and editors at the Muse love to hateand why they'd love to see them broken. Some presenters will also offer their own rules or conventions that they want to see adopted in writing and publishing spaces. This installment comes from author Ursula DeYoung. Ursula will be leading the Muse session Introducing Unforgettable Characters (full!).



One of the most common rules for writers is to “write what you know” and, more specifically, “write where you know.” In other words, set your stories in places you’re familiar with. If you want to write a novel about Los Angeles, then live there, at least for a week or two. If you’re planning a South American epic, go see as much of that continent as you can before you start writing. The implication of this rule is that authors have no business writing about places they’ve never seen, and to some extent the rule makes sense. But I think the urge to break it is irresistible—and for good reason.


I grew up in New England, and I often set my novels there, because I know the landscape, the weather, and the people so well. But I always make up fictional towns for my stories. Some of my friends object to this: it makes the story less believable, they say, if it’s set in a place that doesn’t exist. My answer to this has to do with the scale of make-believe. If you’re writing fiction, somewhere along the line you’re going to make stuff up. Science-fiction and fantasy writers have the glorious freedom of creating whole worlds—but they lose the easy familiarity that writers can take advantage of when they set stories in, say, Boston or Beijing. Yet even a writer who picks a real street in Boston for her protagonist’s address needs to make up the house itself. Eventually, fiction must depart from history, from real life—and since that’s the case, why is it better to make your exit at one point rather than another? Who decides when fiction “ought” to stay true to reality rather than go its own way?

It comes down to a matter of taste. Some writers like to ground their characters in real towns or cities—places they’ve investigated, walked through, seen for themselves. Others prefer to fudge these details and instead make their fictional setting emblematic of a larger region or country; or they want to concentrate exclusively on the characters, leaving the setting out of focus. In my opinion, any of these methods is valid: I’d argue that the many scales of make-believe, from fictional universes to accuracy in every detail, each have their place.


That said, I want to add a note of caution from personal experience. My first novel, Shorecliff, is set on the New England coast—and readers will (I hope!) recognize the region’s distinctive rocky cliffs and wooded shores in the book’s descriptions. But when I sold the manuscript, though it already contained all those descriptions, the story wasn’t set in New England; it took place in Maryland, a place I’d never visited, which I chose deliberately to give myself the dangerous freedom of making up my setting. Only a few months before the book went to press, I finally allowed my sister, an ecologist, to read the manuscript, and she called me in a tizzy: “Maryland doesn’t have big cliffs, you idiot! The glaciers never got that far south, and the coastline is completely different!” In my ignorance, I had described a setting I knew well but placed it in an utterly inappropriate location. Thanks to my sister’s last-minute warning, however, I had time to make the necessary changes, and Shorecliff now takes place in Maine, a far more fitting backdrop for its plot, characters, and signature New England cliffs.


The lesson I learned from that experience was to do at least a little research. I still don’t feel the need to visit a place in person, to scout out towns and streets and real-life coffee shops. But I do make sure to read about landscape, customs, plant life, architecture—the many facets of a setting—before I start writing. I give myself the freedom to tell stories about any place, even places I don’t know anything about beforehand, but I use that freedom as an excuse to learn—a much safer, as well as more informative, method of writing fiction than making it up wholesale.

Ursula DeYoung is a novelist and editor living Cambridge, MA. Her first novel, Shorecliff, a family drama set in 1920s Maine, was published by Little, Brown in 2013. In 2017, she founded the literary journal Embark, which features the openings of unpublished novels. She has greatly enjoyed teaching at GrubStreet for the past few years.


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About the Author

Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review,  Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the  Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit

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by Colwill Brown