In writing, there is that oft-uttered phrase “Write what you know”. Many fiction writers start out in the cozy comfort zone of doing just that; looking within themselves and their body of experience to create compelling, realistic material.
I think back to my teen years, banging out stories on my parents’ old Underwood typewriter. I can still feel the eager breath on my neck from friends, dying to read the next chapter in whatever saga I was concocting (and killing trees for) that week. “Write me,” they’d say. “Can I be dating so-and-so?” And “Put me in Jordache jeans and give me really good hair!” Or “I hate that teacher. Can we have him kidnapped?” And tap-tap-tap, magically I would fulfill their wishes, only too happy to craft their desires into something tangible on the page. It was the world we knew, only we made it better. Our rules.
Fast forward to finishing my first novel and readying it for reading consumption. “Is this character based on you?” people asked, when they heard the protagonist shared the same profession as me (Librarian). Other than embodying some basic stereotypical traits that many librarians have – a love for order, for example – not even close. Katrina Lewis is much cooler and wittier than me. She’s been through an ordeal that reshapes her world, and is much more afraid of the known than the unknown. Me, I’m a wimp!
“Is this us?” My husband inquired, as he began to read the courtship between two characters set in a part of Manhattan familiar to him.
“Do you want to die by chapter three?” I asked him. He didn’t. “Then no, it’s not about you, me, or the concept of us.”
As the writer grows, the “known” can become a noose around the neck. Unless you are living like Hemingway, writing what you know begins to feel restrictive. And so we naturally progress into “writing what we research really well”. It is not uncommon for writers to immerse themselves completely into unfamiliar territory in the name of “research”. Recently, an author friend was crafting a major portion of her novel, set at a winery. She contacted a local vineyard with questions about wine-making, and found herself helping harvest grapes for that season’s vintage! Using the knowledge she learned as a base, she was able to craft a well-rounded, succinct and rich tale. Accurate, yet containing her unique stamp as a storyteller. Because as writers, we learn to “launch off” from what we know, learn and do.
At the heart of what we “know, learn and do” is emotion. Authors of historical fiction may never have lived through a specific battle, but if they have felt fear, rage, etc. in their lifetime, they will know how to craft fear, rage, etc. in relation to what they have researched and learned about that particular time period.
Thankfully, I haven’t experienced the loss of a loved one like my heroine tragically did. But loss on any level, I believe, can translate. I had been working on a different scene in the book when a loved and respected member of our community was lost. While I did not know her well, I knew she was an amazing person who had touched the lives of many. Trying to make sense of such a loss was surreal, sad and scary. It made an impression on me and the emotions shadowed me as I worked. Around that same time, I realized the Dewey Decimal System placed ‘Marriage and Family’ at 306.8 and ‘Death and Dying’ at 306.9 – grief and love, hand-in-hand. And I started to think about how a Librarian – someone who loves order – would try to make sense out of such a thing. And thus a major premise of my book developed.
Fellow writers – what say you? Have readers ever pegged your work for “disguised autobiography”? Do you tend to stay within your comfort zone, no matter how hard you’ve tried to break out? Or maybe you’ve found your niche and voice there, and it’s spelled success for you?
How have you taken what you “know, learn and do” to the next level? I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing what you KNOW!