Before I jump in, I must apologize for not posting as scheduled last week! Monday morning, I hit a deer on the highway and spent the day both caring for kids (who were not with me when it happened, thankfully) and dealing with all of the followup stuff that comes with being in an accident (insurance, rental car, police report, etc.). In the chaos, I didn't even realize I missed a week until I was looking over my schedule today.
That said, let's get to it!
One of the most common pieces of writing advice I’ve received over the years is this: write what you know. When I first started socializing on twitter, more than a decade ago, I connected with author Michael Scott (who I knew for co-writing The Merchant Prince with author and actor Armin Shimerman). When I asked for his best piece of writing advice, that’s what he told me.
I was disappointed, because I was beginning to pen a novel that took place in Scotland, which I’d never visited. In the early days of my writing endeavors, I took “write what you know” to mean a number of things, but the biggest one was that I should write from my literal experiences. As I was just a youngster when I started writing, this advice deterred me quite a bit because I didn’t want to just write about the things with which I had experience. After all, I already got to live my life, I didn’t need to keep track of a whole other one! But I had never experienced the things I wanted to write about – like Scotland – and this put me off from writing for a long while as I looked for something I “knew” and could, therefore, write.
While researching for this blog post, I found a number of authors who, like me, took this advice literally and became discouraged because they hadn’t experienced the things they wanted to write about. I’ll include some of the posts and articles I’m referencing at the bottom of this post. Because of this literal interpretation and general misunderstanding, a lot of successful authors actually vehemently disagree with this advice because they feel it encourages boring, autobiographical work.
However, I found that a lot of these authors all came to the same conclusion I eventually did, and that is to write emotions that you know. That may not be the entire meaning behind the common advice, but it’s the easiest way to summarize the underlying meaning.
What connects us to other people is often not our experiences, but what those experiences brought to us on an emotional or spiritual level.
I grew up in a large family and grew very close to my sisters. As such, stories with a strong message of sibling love are often closest to me and draw me into a story. When Frozen came out in 2013, I remember sitting, alone in the cinema, bawling my eyes out over major plot points between Anna and Elsa. Even though neither me nor any of my siblings have supernatural powers that caused us to run away, I could relate to the moments of shame and disappointment that were strongest in the story, as well as the message of sibling love that resolved the biggest conflict in the story. All of the events in the story were far outside of my literal experience, but the feelings were the same.
This goes for anything I watch or read that has sibling conflict. Supernatural has been an ongoing source of emotional turmoil for me because of the dynamic between Dean and Sam Winchester. Similarly, where parents or grandparents are concerned, I become sensitive and can get majorly engrossed in a story.
That’s not to say that I can’t connect to a story that I don’t emotionally relate to, but my deep knowledge of the emotions associated with complicated family relationships make stories of family stories I’m more qualified to tell.
This doesn’t only apply for matters of the heart. Comedians often write their best work when they come from a place that the audience can relate to. Customer service routines and jokes are almost universally funny because most people have been in customer service in some form or another (and the ones who haven’t are usually the butt of the jokes – sorry, guys).
When you connect to a topic on a personal level, you can learn more about yourself and what it is that you know as an author. This is one of the myriad of reasons I say it’s important to consume if you’re going to create. You have to know what you like and appreciate in order to know what you want to make.
Besides writing something that you are comfortable and familiar with, it’s important to realize that you know more than you think. While I’ve always understood that I’m familiar with feelings of love and closeness with family, it took me a few years to learn that I was also good at writing the more negative aspects of complicated relationships. I know about the bitterness, resentment, regret, and guilt that come with the loss of someone you should have been closer to. I understand the empty space left by the loss of someone who played a big role in your life. These weren’t things I ever considered myself to “know” until I began to write them – and I began to draw from experiences in my life I didn’t realize could serve as a resource bank for my writing.
Ursula K. Leguin said, “Write what you know, but remember you may know dragons.” In addition to searching for the things you may not be aware of knowing, see if you can draw parallels from your life and apply them to your story in creative ways. This falls somewhat under writing emotions that you know, but it’s a little more broad and can be applied in different ways. You can use real-life examples to create caricatures within your story, make an unpleasant person despicably nasty, or a sweetheart into an actual angel. It’s great to experiment and see what tweaks you can add to characters, places, and situations to give them more compelling features.
Write about things that you find interesting. In my book (coming out July 1st!) I cover this topic more, but I’ll say briefly here that you should pick things to write about that you like spending time with. You’re probably not a WWII veteran, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write about WWII if you are comfortable spending lots of time with the topic and doing it justice.
The current tome I’m working through is called “The First Samurai: The life and legend of the warrior master Taira Masakado.” Author Karl Friday was definitely not alive or in Japan during the 10th century, when his account takes place, but he spent a great deal of time researching and learning about the topic in order to write an accurate history. It was a topic he found interesting, and was able and willing to dedicate a lot of time to. His earnest care and attention shows in the work, making it a compelling and interesting volume.
All this is great, but how do you put writing what you know into practice?
1. Identify what you emotionally connect with in your media, whether it’s books, tv, movies, or something else. When you’ve done this, you can begin to relate these emotions in your own writing
2. Explore your world and discover what else you know. Look at the aspects that you’ve never considered in your writing before. It could be something at work, something social, a hobby, or even something you consume as entertainment that you hadn’t previously considered.
3. Create in the field you find interesting. Compose vastly on the topics you find interesting. It doesn’t have to be solely in the format of your book, either; you can start a blog, a Twitter series, or even just pen topic posts on Facebook or Reddit. Exploring what I know and find interesting was a huge inspiration for this blog.
4. Write things that scare you. When you begin to broach topics that make you nervous, you can discover what about them scares you, or what you find intimidating.
5. Practice practice practice! The only way to improve is to work at it. Utilize feedback from friends, family, and beta readers to help improve your work and broaden your perspective.
Whatever you create, consider if you’re speaking with authority. My editor pointed out recently that I spoke tentatively in places through my book. Confident writing is attractive, it’s compelling, and it holds the reader’s attention. If you don’t feel comfortable writing with authority, turn around and learn more about the topic at hand. When you write what you know, confidence will show through your words and make your writing stronger.
My book comes out in two weeks!
You can pre-order through Amazon or email firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about a signed paperback.
As always, thank you for reading and joining us this week! Remember, there will be NO blog posts in the month of July, as I’ll be busy promoting my book and attending Narrativity in Minneapolis (tickets on sale until July 8th).
Come back next Monday for “Why does nobody get me?”