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Write What You Sort of Know
Written by
Miriam Weinstein
April 2016
Written by
Miriam Weinstein
April 2016

We writers get advice that can sound repetitive: Build your platform, consolidate your brand, write what you know. While I am not about to tell you that you should be starting in on a book about, say, nuclear fission if you are a romance kind of gal, I am going to urge you to start from a place of not too much knowledge, and move towards not too much consistency. And above all, have fun.

Today I am holding the ARC of my She Writes book. It will be my fourth published work. Although all have been non-fiction, all have been different. The similarities were that nothing like the book I imagined was available. I could identify a potential market. I had some specialized knowledge or abiding interest. And I was very curious.

My background is in newspapers and magazines, where I learned about what constitutes a story, and how important it is to align your interests and obsessions with those of some recognizable audience.

My first book, Yiddish: A Nation of Words, was a history of the Yiddish language. I realized that the people whose Yiddish was the background of my childhood were all gone, and that my own children had only the most fleeting idea of what the Yiddish language, and the culture it expressed, had been about. I knew enough to ask the right questions. I was ignorant enough that the process was an adventure for me.

The book won the National Jewish Book Award, and was translated into four languages. My publisher asked if I would put together an anthology of Yiddish literature. That was my second book: Prophets and Dreamers: A Selection of Great Yiddish Literature. Again; there was nothing like this slim, accessible paperback. And schools and individuals could use it.

Next up was The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier, and Happier. I wrote it after I discovered research that eating family meals is a stronger predictor of good outcomes for teenagers than good grades in school, church attendance, etc. etc. And this small topic seemed like a manageable way for parents to think about how they could help their families. Because it was the first book on this topic, it got great press, and it provided me with many years of work for some wonderful food companies who genuinely cared about the subject.

And now I have written All Set For Black, Thanks: A New Look At Mourning. I channeled Nora Ephron for tone, and wrote about what a bummer it is to see friends and family dying. It became a sort of topic-driven memoir, with side trips to include strange and exotic mourning practices, as well as some helpful advice. (Consider sushi instead of casseroles.)

As with my other books, nothing like this one currently exists. And I can identify ready markets. Early signs are good; readers seem to appreciate the fact that I can make them laugh without losing the essential gravity of the subject. So I send this book on its way, hoping that it finds many friends, and grows into a confident version of itself. If I am lucky, it will bring me to new places, new adventures.

Because what would be the fun in writing a book that already exists, or something whose outcome is already known? The pleasure comes from starting with a need, a compelling set of questions, and then following them where they lead -- hopefully to an appreciative audience at the end.

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