Sunday, March 6, 2011

On Writing What You Know

CN Nevets in a February 3 blog post talks about the concept of “writing what you know.” He concludes that “writing what you know or writing authentically means knowing enough about what you’re writing that even if you’ve never experieneced it yourself before, your readers will feel as if they have through your story.” He suggests that this kind of authenticity can come through understanding the emotions being conveyed, not being over confident with the details you pick up from your research, and knowing when facts or details may not be important or relevant.

In thinking about my own writing, I realized that I use the concept of “writing what you know” in slightly different ways.

Writing characters you know: In life, we meet people who are so distinctive that they were just born to be in novels. Their style of speech, their mannerisms, the roles they play offer us jumping off points for imagination. My novel set in Japan is populated with distinctive, secondary characters based on people I met while working there many years ago. However, neither the protagonist nor the antagonist, who occupy center stage, are based on real people.

Writing places you know: Many a writer makes his or her living setting much of their work in their hometowns or other familiar places. Think Anne Tyler and Baltimore, or Robert Parker and Boston in the Spencer for Hire series. In these books, place often becomes a character. I am most comfortable setting my work in places I have lived or visited, but because my knowledge may extend back to another era, I frequently find myself needing to do research to get the details right, such not having a character visit a place that didn’t yet exist.

Writing time periods you know: If you write stories set only in the current time, you still need to understand how the history of characters who are older or younger than you will have an impact on their world view. Those of us with any life experience know people of different ages and can generally try to represent those views. However, when writing about an earlier time in one’s life, the challenges are greater. Coupled with some good research, we may be able to capture the essence and even some of the details of those times, but it is easy to misremember our own pasts and how we acted or felt, and perhaps even harder to present characters not of our generation.

Writing about experiences you’ve had: As the basis for a whole story, writing from real life has its pitfalls because of the tendency to want to tell a story as it was (in which case, write a memoir!) Real experiences don’t always have the necessary plot or arc to maintain reader interest. Thus, the writer may need to veer off substantially from the way things actually happened. And just because something happened doesn’t make it believable. Real experiences can be used in a variety of ways in telling a story, and for me always serve as a trigger for my writing. In a recent short story, I used something I’d witnessed as the inciting incident of the plot. My Japan novel is liberally sprinkled with things that I actually experienced that give the story its texture, but they do not provide the spine of the story. In contrast, in my young adult novel, real events provide a structure on which to hang the plot although the plot is entirely fictional. Finally, in my novel about the adventures of two women in midlife, real experiences inspired many key plot points.

Writing emotions you know or understand. Building on Nevets point, above all else, I believe that the success of a story that is character driven rests on the authenticity of the emotions of those characters. Simply put, do we buy it, even if the story takes place in an unfamiliar world and time?

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