Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Write What You Know

It’s no secret that when a writer is bitten by the fiction bug they experience a jolt of excitement in finding their passion. There is, however, for some of those writers, a nasty toxin that lingers in their systems, sometimes for life. What effects does this toxin have on unsuspecting writers? One particularly nasty effect gets them to lock into writing guidelines and consider them hard, carved-in-stone rules from which they must never deviate.

Most of these so-called rules are easy to dismiss, bend, break or ignore. Though, there is one that puts up a tougher fight. On many occasions I’ve heard and read that writers should write what they know. I’ve fielded that question a few times at conventions or in writing groups and every time I get stuck in the same sparring match – how can I write about murder or flying an airplane or driving a racecar when I’ve never murdered anyone, flown a plane or even gotten a speeding ticket?

The fiction writing bug does a great job because its venom gets the writer to take this suggestion literally. One has to look at the broader meaning.

Consider this, a scene has many elements and one of them is emotion (or lack of it). When we talk about writing what we know, we talk about making a connection with something emotionally, something close enough to the action you’re writing about to give it realism.

I’ve never flown a plane, but I can ask a pilot about the mechanics of flying a plane or I can try a flight simulator to get a handle on the procedures of piloting an aircraft. What I lose is the emotional connection to flying a plane. By all means ask a pilot what it feels like to fly a plane and use that but go one step further and write what you know.

Here’s what I know about flying a plane. I’ve been in the cockpit of one in flight, I’ve also been at the open door of a plane several thousand feet in the air, while the plane was banking. I’ve flown on commercial airlines and felt severe turbulence. I’ve flown through fog so thick that I spotted the runway just as the wheels touched down. I’ve been on a plane that lost altitude and quickly recovered. I’ve flown at night and day, above, below and through the clouds. I’ve been on a plane during a heavy storm. I’m sure I could come up with more.

I must consider what the scene entails. Let’s say the pilot has a killer flying after him in another plane and he’s trying to lose him. I can not only use what I know of being on and around planes and the interview with a real pilot but also anything that will bring me the emotions that go with…flying fast, erratically, banking and rolling. I can draw from my experience of being on a rollercoaster that flipped upside-down. I can use my experiences watching movies at the Ontario Place Theatre. There was a film that showed a bird’s eye perspective of flying over all kinds of terrain and you felt just like you were the bird (my stomach flipped a few times as I recall).

What you might find is that your scene is likely to change when you apply write what you know. It will get better and feel far more real to you which translates to a much more fulfilling read for your audience.

There are going to be scenes where you’ll have to stretch your imagination to apply write what you know. Let’s take murder for example. No, I’ve never murdered anyone and I’ve never even wanted to. I’ve been angry and upset at people, but murder never crossed my mind. So, what then? How do you apply writing what you know in this situation?

Since you’re writing in the realm of fiction then I know you’re a creative person and that is what you’ll have to tap to make the emotional connection work. You’ll have to be very specific to your character’s needs and wants and their reasons for committing such a heinous crime. Once you’re clear on all that, ask yourself what that experience may be like for your character? What are they feeling? If it’s anger that drives them to kill, think of the most angry you’ve ever been and connect your character to those emotions.

This is where you’ll be happy that writing is a solitary affair; you wouldn’t want to openly share these emotional moments with people since they are so personal – I know I’d never share them. You’re not writing about the event that made you feel a certain way, you’re focusing on the feelings that were a result of the event. Did your body shake? What did it feel like? Were you sweating, breathing hard, or outwardly completely in control and your mind reeling? Fists clenched or hands wrung together? Think about that time and write what you know.

Now go write something – that you know.

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