Yesterday, I was daydreaming about being a successful writer and I began to wonder, is there something I don’t know about me? My experiences? What does this popular piece of writerly advice really mean – Write what you know?
Does that mean my stories can never take place in a far-off land or even in somewhere like Canada or Greece or India, since I have never been to those places? Does it mean that “she” can’t be a “he” or cannot have any brothers or can’t be a chef or can’t enjoy things like skydiving or knitting?
What’s the point of creating and writing and trying to be imaginative if you can’t even, well, imagine?
Writing What I Know, In the Imaginative Sense
A little while ago, I started writing a YA serial story / novel about a teenage girl who travels all over the universe. Obviously, I haven’t been to the universe. But I have, thankfully, for a significant period in my life, been a teenage girl.
I know what it’s like to be “that age”, in that frame of mind, with all those feelings and hormones and ideas about the world rushing through you. And it’s this aspect of myself that I found I could pour into the character. I could bring to life her needs and wants, her desires and fears, because I’ve felt them too (not all of them, mind you – some are still made up).
On the other side of the coin, I’ve never been a ten-year-old boy whose parents are dead/absent. Yet who is the star of the children’s novel I am currently writing? Take a guess. Yes, in answer to your anticipated question, writing this character is much harder. I’m not a boy, I didn’t grow up around boys (except at school) and I don’t have any children of my own to draw from (not yet, anyway).
So, the obvious questions were always on my mind: How does a ten-year-old act? Talk? Behave? Think? What’s he do? What’s he interested in?
I found myself turning to my ever-supportive husband for constant Q&A: What toys did you have as a kid? (Sling shots and knives.) What did you carry around in your pockets? (Matches.) Where did you hang out? (In the bush.) Yay.
Not much of this really gelled with my ten-year-old, who is a bit more of a bookworm and more interested in fantasy and adventure than he is in potential weapons and the scrub.
So, What DO I Know?
But what I did know, I discovered, is that the emotions and attitudes and practices my ten-year-old displays can be drawn from what I used to do as a kid. He is fascinated with imaginary worlds. I used to be fascinated with imaginary worlds (and still am). He sometimes feels very alone and is unsure where fits in. Ditto. And so on and so on.
Writing what I know isn’t about whether I’ve had the boyish experiences I want my character to have, but about finding something within myself that I can use to make the character seem more real.
The truth is, in every character you invent and create and write about, there exists a little bit of yourself, even if you didn’t intend it.
And in inventing and writing, this means you can also draw from your own experiences and feelings and fears to create that character, no matter how far removed or “fantastical” their story is from your own. Whether it’s set in Africa or on Mars, in a remote jungle or a suburban home.
Writing More of What You Know – A Few Tips
So, I finally discovered what everyone else probably already knows. That if you do struggle to find that path into your characters’ interior selves, writing what you know can be a grand saviour.
If you’re also battling the same ‘writing what you know’ conundrum, here are 3 writing tricks that often help me tap into what I really know:
1. Forget imagining yourself in the same situation.
Yes, forget it. It’s useless. Instead, think about a time when you WERE in that situation, or a circumstance that was even remotely similar. Something that conjures up the same feeling or thought or mindset you want to portray in your character, at that particular moment in the story.
At the start of my ‘universe’ novel, for example, my character is about to jump off a chunk of rock floating in space in order to escape her pursuers. There’s no real point in saying, “If I were a teenage girl about to jump off a rock into outer space… how would I feel?”
Scared shitless, probably. But that doesn’t really bring much insight.
For me, this type of “creative thinking” doesn’t really work because our characters are still different to us. They’re not us, they’re somebody else – with a different story, different experiences and a different set of emotions.
So, ask: When was I ever in a similar situation?
While I have no idea what it’s like to jump off a rock in space, I do know what it’s like to jump off, say, a diving board or a set of a monkey bars. I remember what it was like to sail through the air in long jump or even what it was like to scream over a descent on a roller coaster.
It’s those real experiences (not hypothetically imagined ones) that will bring true depth and quality to your writing.
2. Draw from what you know – of others.
If you find that you can’t dig up some old experience that emotionally relates to what your character is doing/thinking/feeling or that sheds some light on who he/she is meant to be, then instead take something from someone you know.
You’ve maybe got a father who’s biased or an aunt who’s fastidious about dust or a friend who loves to party or a teacher you remember as being open and influential.
Chances are, somewhere, in someone around you, is a personality trait or an emotion or a perspective you can give to one of your characters. I find this is great when you’re trying to work out the “big picture” of a character or when you’re struggling to discover who they really are.
Drawing on others is a fantastic way to add further depth. Behaviours, prejudices, fears, desires, anxieties, quirks, opinions and stories are all around you, in those you know. Use those connections in your writing.
3. Look at Strangers.
Seriously, stare and ogle. Even the tiniest details of the guy on the sidewalk next to you can reveal a whole world of insights. And these are insights (or at least assumptions, stories, actions) that you can translate into your narrative/characters.
These observations might help:
- How do strangers sit? Stand? Wait? Move? Walk? Run?
- What are they wearing? – Clothes / shoes / accessories / jewellery / hats / make-up / hair ?
- How do they talk? What is their voice like?
- What words do they use? Are their sentences long and non-stop or short and sweet?
- What gestures do they make when they talk? What do their expressions reveal? What are their eyes saying?
Strangers can offer up a plethora of ideas, options and ‘ways of being’ that can make your character really step off the page. And the trick is to take these details and use them to reveal something about your guy or girl, man or woman, child, old person, monster, astronaut, chef, doctor, writer, reader.
Good Luck & Happy Writing!
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