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Write What You Know
By Tina Morgan
How many times have you heard that phrase? Write what you know. Just what does that mean?
A recent discussion in a writing group I belong to has led me to believe as writers, we may be taking that phrase too literally. Think about all the articles in your local newspaper. There are stories over every subject imaginable, but not every reporter could have experienced all the different situations that they write about. Think about your favorite novels. Were they written by authors who actually experienced the events their characters go through in the course of the book?
The most obvious example of authors being unable to experience what they write about is sf/fantasy authors. After all, how many of us have been aboard the Millennium Falcon or the Enterprise? No human has ever been on a distant planet, driven a starship through a black hole or witnessed a friend/enemy being sucked out of an airlock into the infinite vacuum of space.
These aren't the only examples of writers going beyond their own personal experiences. Anne Sewell had no idea what it was like to be a horse when she wrote 'Black Beauty'. William Shakespeare was never a young girl so in love she committed suicide at the death of her beloved. The average romance writer has never made love to Fabio or any of the other cover models.
So how do they get around the golden rule of writing what they know?
To figure that out, you have to look at the element present in every story every written. The human experience. What? 'Black Beauty' isn't about a human? True, but Black Beauty was given human emotions. Human understanding. Without becoming mind readers, we will never know what a horse truly thinks, but by making the animal seem human, readers could relate, could put themselves in the horse's head for the time that they read the book. Feel his fear of the barn fire, feel his sadness at being sold to another owner, and feel his compassion for his human caretakers.
William Shakespeare might not have known what it was like to be a young girl, but he knew what it was like to be in love. Maybe not to the point of committing suicide but the ability to imagine how it would feel, to magnify his own feelings on paper, for the sake of the story is what made it possible for him to write 'Romeo and Juliet'.
We have all experienced the basic human emotions: love, hate, fear, anger, pain, and loss. Some lucky writers have never lost a close friend or relative, but almost everyone has experienced the loss of a pet, or the loss of innocence that comes with maturity.
How do you write about a time or situation you have not experienced?
Very simple. You research. Diana Gabladon has never been to 19th century Scotland. What she has done is extensively researched the era so that she can effectively transport her characters and fans into a time she has never experienced. While Louis L'Amour did travel extensively, he did not live in 1600 Europe. However, he researched the time and the social structure of Ireland and his 'Walking Drum' novel allowed millions of fans to experience life through his character's eyes.
In the age of the Internet, research is easier than ever before. There are thousands of websites and groups to explore. If you want to include an autistic character, you research autism. To be even more realistic, you find an autistic support group and talk parents. Any time you want to include a character with a certain type of illness or disability, research. Most support groups and non-profit organizations are more than willing to talk to an author for the simple reason that they don't want any misconceptions or myths spread about the illness/disability they advocate.
Once you've done your research, how to you apply it to your story?
After researching the issue you want to cover, break your character's experiences down into the most basic levels. Your character is going to lose a child to a fatal disease and you don't have children? Do you have a pet? Imagine that pet being a child of your own body. Imagine the loss of all the hopes and dreams you ever had for that child. Imagine the loss of potential as a young life is cut short. Imagine the anger at not even being able to strike back or fight the 'creature' that is taking this piece of your heart away from you.
If your character is going to face insurmountable odds and you feel that you are too meek of a person to battle such adversity, don't shy away from creating the emotions that will carry your story. Reflect on your childhood. Did you have a hard time in a subject at school but yet you managed to pass by working harder than you ever thought possible? Did you have a hard time learning to ride a bike or overcoming your fear of dogs? So these experiences might be insignificant compared to what you're putting your character through, but the emotions you felt at the time are just as real. Expand on them. Make them larger than life.
Fiction is rarely about normal people living normal lives. Most readers want to experience more than everyday life when they read. They want to be transported into a character that is larger than the people they see around them. They want to 'feel' what the characters are feeling, to delve into the complexities of another person in the way they would shy away from in real life.
Unless you are writing about a personal tragedy you will have to use your imagination. Use the creativity that drives you to write in the first place. Take those feelings you have everyday and amplify them. Make them more intense, more vivid. Before you know it, you will be 'writing what you know'.
© Copyright 2001 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved
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