Friday, May 21, 2010

Writing from Life

The old saw "write what you know" is often, I think, misunderstood. While it seems obvious to wrap your writing in things you know well to avoid embarrassing faux pas, this can loom like the Great Wall of Mediocrity for people who think they've never done anything interesting in their lives and therefore have nothing to write about. Au contraire. No one has been to Mars, yet there are plenty of stories set on Mars. Obviously "what you know" is not a deal killer. It's called research, and lots of it.

However, every writer has a wealth of hidden information in her soul. Everything you've done in your life contributes to the pool of experience lurking in your brain, that is tapped by your muse every time you begin to write. Or it should. Trying to step completely outside your "mundane" experience will quickly get you in trouble if you're trying to set a story in New York and have never been there. Watching Law and Order won't get you there, sorry. But you have lived somewhere in your life! What's interesting about the places--and all the people who live there--that you've encountered in your lifetime? How can you re-envision them to form the background of your fantasy or SF story? This is writing from real life, with a twist.

Now, discover the real hidden treasure in yourself. Step back and take a good look at things closer to home than Mars, namely, what do you know enough about to call yourself an expert on? That doesn't mean you have to hold a degree in whatever (or it might). It could be anything that will inform your stories with authenticity. This includes:
  • Regional dialects/foreign languages

  • Familiarity with a country/region: people, geography, scenery, customs, quirks

  • Hobbies: crafts you're good at that could be woven into a story to make characters come alive and give the piece a new twist. It occurred to me the other day that a hobby of mine I considered absolutely useless is actually well-suited to what I write, and I have a story well underway using that knowledge.

  • Occupations: what have you worked at in your life that will give your story an "insider" feel? Look how well "The Office" has done at capturing corporate cubicle craziness. What will office life be like on the moon?

  • Areas of study: that history degree or your seven languages have more uses than you know. How can you apply the mechanics of what you learned to fantastic situations and put that knowledge onto the page in interesting ways? How do museums or archeological digs really function, and how can you use that knowledge? Can you envision a whole new language from your knowledge of human tongues? (It worked for Tolkien!)

  • Clubs/associations: who do you associate with? How do the clubs work? Can you use that insider knowledge to form a secret society within your fantasy world? One hopes you're using the knowledge of costuming gleaned from masquerades at cons, or your hands-on experience with recreationists, as background for enriching your fiction.

  • What are you passionate about? The things that really mean something to you are the things closest to your heart, that you can write about with enthusiasm and knowledge, and perhaps spin a great story out of.
I recommend making yourself a list of what you know, what you're good at, past/present associations, and anything else you never considered might be germane to your genre. You will surprise yourself, I think. And suddenly the struggle to come up with a new setting, a fresh take, or an authentic scene may just get easier.