Writing what you know – the pros and cons

I stumbled on this lovely post, Write About What You Know by Cristian Mihai and I think it covered some important topics for us as writers. While I wasn’t planning to post on this topic today, it got me thinking and before I knew it, I had a neat little note card of things to say and well, here we are.

Firstly I’d just like to say that some of what I’m about to write is a reiteration of what Cristian said, however I’d like to focus on some of the more personal outcomes of following the advice -Write what you know.

I can’t remember when I first started writing stories. Though I imagine I wrote plenty of terribly crafted-half  thought out ones as a child, the earliest ones that I remember began when I was eight. That being said, I don’t remember creating anything but flash fiction and nonsensical fairy tales until after ten. My first attempt at a true book, though, was around the age of fourteen.

That particular story was basically an embellished Mary Sue and while the set up and the characters seemed to be fresh and creative to me at the time, looking back on it now, as an older college grad, I can see all the details of my own life. The main characters friends were my friends, only prettier, with different names. I think I probably even have notes written in the margins somewhere that those girls had the personalities of people in my life. It didn’t stop there though. The drunken dad, the absent mother, the perfect boy; they were all versions of my family and friends, or at least my perceptions of them at that time. In that respect, rereading those clumsily written chapters is like reading a diary entry from around the same time. I drew on the things I saw around me and I planned and imagined what would happen to my characters, but ya know what?

I never finished that story and I’m pretty sure that I know why. Writing my fictionalized life story couldn’t very well end, since I hadn’t lived yet. I ran out of ideas once I hit the points to which I had lived through, and while I didn’t see it that way then, I see it that way now. Only a year ago I decided to pull that unfinished story out and try to finish it. A I read over the chapters and my notes it stirred up some painful memories, but at the same time, with the distance of many years between us, I could finally see my work for what it was.

Thankfully, when I couldn’t finish that story, I didn’t stop there. I wrote many other stories that would never see endings, and while a number have been resurrected and will (hopefully) see the light of day sometime soon, others will remain with that first book. In a bin of old memories, to be put aside but not forgotten.

I guess what I hadn’t realized, until last year at least, was that writing what you know, might be so subconsciously done that we don’t see it for what it is. In my case that didn’t end so nicely, but I think for adults or at least more experienced writers, it becomes easier to discern what came from fact and what it purely fiction and what strikes a happy medium in between.

That’s what this advice is all about. Finding the balance between what you know to be true about life or people and what you have experienced because of that, vs. how you see the world and how you recreate it for others. Each one of us has different experiences in our lives, and it’s those experiences which give us the fodder for our writing. I personally keep a journal, and while most of what goes on in there is random, I always write down bits of dialogue or notes from what I see or feel to use later. Sometimes I will even write my surroundings out as a description one might see in a novel. For future reference of course.

And whether I use it or not, who cares. But I suppose what I’m trying to say is that we can’t choose how our feelings and memories will influence our work. Sometimes it’s unpredictable and some times it so predictable it’s absolutely ridiculous.

For instance, I was recently reading one of my mother’s novels (she writes too!) and a description came up as the characters were walking through this gorgeous house showing another character the grounds. And as I read the passage I pictured a house we used to live in in my mind.

Suddenly I was there, walking through the dark wooden doors which snapped tightly closed, down the hallway where the floor boards shown like glass and squeaked like mice, up the grand staircase, past the … I think you get the picture. And so did I. I wasn’t just imagining my old house, my mother had written the story to take place there. Right down to the servants stair case.

Great fun to run up and down with my friends, but frightening for a child alone at home.

At any rate, when I confronted her, she agreed. She had been imagining our old house when she wrote the scene. And she’s not alone. I did the same thing with my current home on a novel I’ve been working on recently.

Why?

Because it’s easier to conjure the map of your old house, or your high school, or your dentist’s office, rather than to try and write a floor plan on the spot, let alone remember it for future scenes. In the heat of the moment a insignificant detail gets replaced with our go to details from our own life. Bars, local restaurants, towns, you name it and we’ve used the things from our lives to make our fictional world’s easier.

Now I’m sure there are probably people who don’t do this, but I think that a lot of people do and why not. Write what you know.

Not the traditional meaning I know, but still, it makes sense when you think about it. Right?! It’s not a bad thing either. It’s what gives us our unique perspective. When I read about some character walking to the park, I’m reading a road map to a place that author once lived or visited or vacationed, or even dreamed of going. Either way that is something which I haven’t seen, or maybe I have, and still it gives me more insight into the world.

Write what you know people!

I was going to address something else in that got me thinking in Cristian’s post but I think I’ll leave that for another day.

 

How do you feel about the advice, write what you know? Let me know in the comments below.

Happy Scribbling!

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