There are a number of “rules” that writers are told, and one of the most common is “Write what you know”. To counter this, we are also told “Make things up – use your imagination”. Along with those is “Anything can be researched” and “There’s nothing that will help your novel more than actually visiting the place where it’s set”. I’m sure there are many science fiction and fantasy writers who are totally on the side of “make it up”, and there are as many others who insist you only write what you have experienced.
Hardly surprising then that there is a middle ground! If we only wrote what we knew about, what is the point of having imagination? But it’s also true that writing about what you have experienced yourself does bring a vividness to your writing, often through sensory details that you can’t get by looking at a photo. So what are some pointers for the middle ground – taking the best of both?
When I was about five, I had a fear of spiders (still do but now I’m bigger and I have large cans of fly spray and a broom). However, my grandmother was quite concerned about this and one day she took me out to the woodpile and found a large hairy wolf spider. She picked it up and tried to persuade me to hold it. You know how it goes – the assurances that the spider won’t bite, that it’ll feel cute and tickly, you’re bigger than it is, etc. Sorry, Nana, but no way was I going anywhere near that thing. I probably went and tattled to Mum about what she’d done!
Many years later, I can still remember the setting and my nana, the brown spider in her hand, and my fear. In fact, every time I see a large hairy spider, the feeling returns. I can use any or all of that, and I can use it over and over. Not that I want to write about hairy spiders all the time, but the emotions, the setting and the conversation can be re-created in different ways to add veracity to my writing. So this is the beginning of the middle ground:
- Rather than just write what you remember, think about the particular sensory details of the event – the setting with its smells, sounds and what the important small things looked like. Revive the emotions you felt, either through free writing or by imagining your character going through this. How did you react? Will your character react the same way? If not, why not? What then will he/she do? (One day I’m going to write about a character that smashes that spider out of Nana’s hand and steps on it.)
- The problem with “write what you know” is that real events often don’t make a compelling story. In your attempts to re-tell, you forget about the need for tension, for character depth, for something important to happen. You just tell it like it was, which is only reporting, instead of getting inside the event. You need to stand back from the event and see where the plot lies. And see what you will have to change to make it a story.
- In order to change things, you have to step out of the story. This can be the hardest part (but it really happened, I hear people say). One way is to write the story in third person, giving the main character a name, making it no longer about you. Changing the gender of the main character helps, too.
- What is the story you are actually trying to tell? What does it mean? What will it mean to a reader? If it’s only significant to you, maybe it isn’t worth writing about. Does it have a wider significance? If not, can you rewrite it so it does? If you had to pin it down, what is the theme?
- Try moving it into a different form. Instead of a short story, turn it into a play or ten minute movie (OK, a full length movie if you’re writing a novel). Or write it as a series of poems. This will help you understand more clearly where the real story lies, and whether you can make something of it.
The key is to keep writing about all kinds of memories, even if you keep it as a journaling or free writing exercise. The more you get that material onto the page, the more skilled you will become at seeing what might work as a story. Eventually, you’ll be able to slip all kinds of fragments, anecdotes and experiences from your own life into your character’s lives – and they’ll hardly know it didn’t happen to them!
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