Oct 21, 2015

How to Write What You Know - And LOVE it!

The first rule of writing, right? Well, I always found this a little bit of a downer. I liked the second rule "Write what you love" much better. Writing what you know just sounds so . . . boring? I want to write about CIA operatives and the FBI agent who gets the tough suspect to talk! I want to write about the coast guard saving people's lives. I want to write about the awesome cop in New York City who just broke up a drug ring and found out his partner was leading it.

I just kinda side-stepped this rule when no one was looking. Gave it a neat little shove into the closet, turned the lock and threw away the key. Did my storytelling ability suffer for it? Not so you would notice. But then again, it may have in ways I never thought about . . .

My life is unexciting and event-less. Why should I be writing about it?
This rule makes everyone think they need to write about their own personal life. 
But it dawned on me that this rule is a little misleading. 
It needs a face-lift . . . More like a couple of words changed.

Now how does that sound? Happy sigh coming right up!

It turns out one of my favorite authors is an excellent example.

Elizabeth Wein was born in New York City, grew up in England, Jamaica and Pennsylvania. She now lives in Scotland with her husband, and they are both avid flyers of small planes.

So, what did she write about? 1) A Scottish girl who ferried aircraft during WWII, Code Name Verity. But this story is also about an agent for the SOE in Germany, something she didn't know about. 2) In Rose Under Fire, she wrote in the same time period, but this time about an American girl from Pennsylvania. 3) In Black Dove, White Raven she wrote about children from Pennsylvania whose mothers' fly planes and do stunt tricks. In this book she also incorporates her love of Ethiopia and a bit of nostalgia from her previous series about King Arthur, more specifically his illegitimate son, Medraut, in Arthurian England. Then she took this story and wrote about Medraut's son in Ethiopia, Telemakos. Ethiopia also being something she did not previously know about.

Everything she loved she incorporated into what she wrote. We should do the same.

It's not what you know, it's how you use what you know.

What do you love that you could possibly incorporate into your stories?

What about the places you've lived that could offer spectacular setting possibilities? Christopher Paolini, author of The Inheritance Cycle, based his fantasy world on the Beartooth Mountains in Paradise Valley, Montana, where he grew up. 

What might you know that nobody else knows?

It doesn't even have to be something you know specifically. My sister is an EMT, currently a Paramedic student. I love hearing her stories. Did you know EMS and nurses have this odd feud going on?

Did you know oil riggers come back all splotchy with oil? I wouldn't know this unless I'd seen pictures of my dad with a cheeky grin showing off his oily face. I have a fascination with hands. Hands are so beautiful. Small, but someday this is going to be useful.

I know. I know.
What about Fantasy or Sci-Fi where none of my modern day life fits in at all?
There are lots of things you know from this life that could and should be incorporated into even fantasy and sci-fi. Here's two which writing good stories greatly hinges upon:

Feelings - Only you know what it's like to be you, to have your feelings, to think your thoughts. You can use this to appeal and empathize with others.
Relationships - Complicated as they are, relationships are important. Only you know what it's like to have your parents and siblings, or to hang out with your best friend. The bully at school. Your boss. Not to mention all the people you wished you knew or could know on a small basis.

Don't skimp on feelings and relationships when writings. But make sure they are true to life and realistic. Avoid cliches. Even if they are just little things, if you've experienced them, incorporate them into your writing. It's experiences unique to you that you should write about and/or incorporate into your stories.

Strive for authenticity. The more real you are, the more your readers will connect with your writing.

What are you fascinated with? What stories have you heard first hand? There are a million ways to write what you know, er--INCORPORATE what you know into what you write. Your knowledge of obscure little things is valuable. Don't waste it.

Let's talk! What's one way you've already incorporated what you know into what you've written? Let me know in the comment section below!


Christa Upton said...

This is wonderful!!!! So far, my books have been pretty "close to home," but my secret wish is to write sci-fi someday. :) If I do, I will certainly take your advice!!!! Such good points. I guess in my one historical fiction (short story), I imagined what it would be like to live back then in that city but incorporated what I know of what it feels like to be a child, and a parent, at Christmas. :)

K. M. Updike said...

Oh, our secret wishes! I do wish I could write thrillers!

Imagination and what we know about life are the most crucial elements to writing a story. I think you did just perfect in your Christmas story!