Write What You Know Yada Yada
You writers have heard it a thousand times, right? Write what you know. And you think: What I know could put cowboy to sleep during a steer riding contest. Or: What I know would get me arrested if I enlightened my chosen target audience of grade schoolers. Or even: What do I know? Nothing worth writing.
Ah, but think.
Fiction is a great playing field for spicing up ‘what you know.’
For example, you may be particularly aware today of the cruelty of children because you witnessed a nicely dressed young boy stick out his size five and send a not-so-nicely dressed little boy nose-first into the mud. But, you think: boring. It’s been done, everything’s been said, the field is full of stereotypes. Image of cowboy nodding off as the rear end of his steer shoots for the rafters.
Yes, but you can do better! What if the muddy boy has paranormal powers? What if it’s a teacher doing the tripping? What if you start with that tripping and whip your readers to pathological hatred toward the nicely dressed boy but unwind the story backward to show that this scene is one of justice and when the readers reach the end of the story, they adore that nicely dressed kid and want the other one to eat mud, by God.
What if? Greatest question in fiction.
Perhaps you have had the misfortune to live such a dark side of life that you wouldn’t wish it on your nastiest sixth grade reader. But you know about that life and you write for that sixth grader. What if you add elements to your story that you didn’t enjoy? A pet butterfly? A paranormal ability that will allow the child to see a way through. Maybe the darkness isn’t the same darkness you knew, but an entirely new invention, never seen on the pages of any book in the world, or even on a Kindle, that comes directly from that fertile imagination of yours. Maybe the kid was raised by rattlesnakes on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Maybe he is sighted in a world of blind people, whose ways of living do nothing but hinder his life.
If you are thinking “I don’t know anything worth saying,” Balderdash. You know how at least one family works, because you live in one. In fact, if you grew up and went to college, you know how a family of friends works as well. If you grew up even more, you may know not only your birth family but your married-with-children family. Or you married-without. Or your not married with or without. So does the great American literary novel lurk in one of these family dynamics? Where might the family have gone with those dynamics if you, as a powerful fiction writer, introduce a new unexpected element? Maybe an elephant escapes from the zoo and hides in your garage and you don’t want to give it back. Maybe your father-in-law moves in with you and turns out to be a serial killer. Maybe your mother is a bigamist and when you stumble across her other family, you learn that the boy in that family is your biggest rival at school in the contest to build a robot that can rake up leaves because you live in New Hampshire and boy howdy have you got leaves up the wazoo come fall.
We have already noted that you also know about school, maybe you know about sports, maybe you know about music or band or chess or debate or cliques. Maybe you noticed how some people never seem to have matured beyond high school. Oh yes, there is a wealth of material there, all right. You likely know about some job. Or about not having a job. Getting a job or getting fired, or laid off, or promoted, or not getting promoted.
Write What You Know AND What You Imagine
The trick is to do something new and different with what you know. This is why fiction is so grand. What you know is only the undercoat. You, yes you who think you know nothing that hasn’t been said, you are bestowed with the privilege of adding new detail to your picture any old way you want, hampered by nothing except any lingering inkling you might have that you must stick ONLY to what you know when your imagination can lay on detail after detail.
(Note this is not the same as giving your work an undercoat you know nothing about. If you are an octogenarian female German physicist who has never traveled outside of Heidelberg, you might not want the undercoat of your painting to consist of the life of a Bolivian orphan boy. Not without some powerful research at any rate. No, I am talking about taking what you know and blending in your creative genius. Which I know is in you, even if you haven’t yet unlocked it.)
Throw some crazy wrench into the works and see what happens.
Invent the most eccentric but lovable character ever and see how she fares in your already trampled literary material.
Put them on a different planet where crucial differences send the action in fresh new directions.
Give one of them a paranormal gift of a kind no one has ever thought of before.
Dig down deeper into the psyches of your characters and uncover insights that have never been explored.
Take a character that is never ever ever treated sympathetically and make people weep for him.
Take two characters that have never in the history of mankind been thrown together and plant them right in the place-time-landscape-city-profession-age group that you know.
Write Yourself — With Embellishments
So yes! You can write about what you know if you treat your audiences to fresh aspects with richness, understanding, creativity, wit, empathy, and excellent craft.
Now, what do you know better than you know anything else?
Yourself, of course. (Well probably you don’t, because who really knows themselves, their inter depths, their angst, their experiences before five that shaped their destinies? But you are the repository of a wealth of good material about yourself, right?)
There is a reason that we all know the well-worn saying that everybody has at least one book in them — their autobiography. But then would-be writers go right back to that “but I am not interesting, nobody would read my autobiography.”
Do not weep, for you write fiction and therefore your protagonist-who-is-you can be tweaked, twisted, dropped into unexpected places and unexpected crises. She can take on new powers, paranormal, or otherwise. She can be wealthy while you — because you are a writer — are poor. (If you do your research.) And as she develops, she will have character traits that you don’t have.
You are the undercoat. As a fiction writer, you then embellish.
The undercoat, being you, consists of your experiences perhaps, your occupation. Your personality traits (Incurably happy? Incurably sad? Cerebral? Social? Loner, mixer, one friend or one hundred friends, quick temper, calm as the sea at slack tide? Voluble? Silent? Energetic or laid back?) Pay attention to yourself. Write down such things.
Yes, everyone must have a hair color, even if you decide to give your character transparent hair. (Although look at that hair. Thin in that one terrible spot? Thick on top but the ends split so you can never grow it long?) Look at your little physical characteristics. Do you have bunions to beat the band? Do you have that Roman thing where the left foot second toe, I seem to remember, if longer than the big toe, is a sign of aristocracy? You could work with that. An unusual skin condition? Fingernails the consistency of wet tissue paper? (Why yes.). Look closely at your eyes. Any interesting flakes of off-colors in there? Eyebrows – mine rather disappear half way across. I was looking at a pair on TV last night that measured, I would think, about three inches top to bottom. Strangest thing. Where is your birthmark? Your character can have one there too, shaped like yours, or perhaps the shape of yours will trigger an imaginative jump to a new and intriguing or horrible or funny shape. Look yourself over. Notice what’s there. Find a way to use it.
Notice your habits, gestures, quirks. (Early riser? Night owl? Three squares a day? Maybe seven snacks or one gigantic meal at night. Sugar with your coffee? Peanut butter on celery? Left handed or right at everything or do you crochet opposite-handed? Ambidextrous? Or only ambidextrous when it comes to tying your shoes? Can you mirror-write? Is your hand always roaming around your face? Do you have a tendency to clasp your hands tightly together when you’re standing? Pen kleptomaniac? (I confess.) Yes you chew your pen, but how? Do you naw on the end or clamp the thing straight across your teeth as if you have those awful cardboard things the dentists stick in your mouth for X-rays?
Perhaps your idioms. Your pattern of speech. The way you interact with people. And on and on it goes.
Capture yourself and you can capture rich deep characters because these are the touches that bring your characters to life.
And the beauty of it is that you can study yourself as unflinchingly, as long, in as detailed a way as you like. With your mother and your boyfriend you must be a tad more discreet. In addition, you know your inner self in ways you will never know your mother or boyfriend.
The added bonus is that once you are in the habit of taking inventory of yourself, you find that you steal whatever inventory presents itself as you watch others. You may wear a petite, delicate silver-chained and bejeweled-face watch but you see that your friend Alice goes for a wide leather band and your friend Beatrice sports a watch face the size of tea saucer. What if Alice’s band means she is hiding a tattoo, the name of an assassin who …. What if Beatrice’s watch face means she is extremely near-sighted but much too vain to wear glasses …
Did I mention that “What if” is the greatest invention since pizza, if you start with what you know, beginning with yourself, and take great leaps into the imagination.’’
Whales, Attorneys, and Aliens
My book, The Power of Three: the novel of a whale, a woman, and an alien child, provides a handy example of writing oneself in the broadest strokes. I am an attorney; my protagonist is an attorney, so my details on that score are authentic. I volunteered at a zoo marine mammal center for eight years; my protag is a volunteer at a SeaQuarium in a marine mammal center, so I could add visuals that otherwise might not have been available. I developed a special relationship with one beluga whale there; my protag does also. I came to feel quite badly about her captivity; my protag struggles against all odds to win a way for the fictitious beluga to be free. My protag hosts an alien child who gives her paranormal powers …. Well I’m not saying yes and I’m not saying no. But I do believe I have mentioned something in this blog about great leaps of imagination.