15 February, 2009

Write What You Know

I have heard this my entire life, "Write what you know," and it will be the truest form of your gift. Whether it's poetry or prose, writing from the heart and soul is the fastest way to reach out to an appreciative audience, but what counts as "what you know?"

I love to use Stephen King and Anne Rice as examples, even as they are both fading out of the limelight and into the annals of literary history these days. Now I know you're asking yourself, "So what are you saying, Beans, that Stephen King is in league with the devil, and that's where all those dark and terrifying ideas come from? Or that Anne Rice really is the secret head of a vampire coven located somewhere in New Orleans?"

Silly, silly, that's exactly what I'm saying. Stephen King and Anne Rice write from experience. And not with the dark and demonic, though a great deal of Rice's inspiration is obviously the result of her Roman Catholic upbringing, but with their region. You can't read a Stephen King story without venturing off to Maine as he sees it, and it's a rare thing to wander too far from Louisiana in one of Anne Rice's stories. These two authors have taken their hometowns and run with them like Olympic torch carriers.

Whether we're travelers, or we've spent the last thirty years of our lives living in the same town, that which surrounds us often the perfect muse. All I have to do is walk down one of the main streets in the neighboring towns surrounding me, and I can literally find dozens of short stories just waiting to be written--from the macabre to the sweet to the romantic.

The reason I am blogging about this today is because I'm currently polishing off the second draft of a novel I'm working on. The novel actually takes place in an imaginary town nestled mysteriously into Pennsylvania county I grew up in. It draws from the atmosphere, the region and heavily relies on the fact that this is farm country. I grew up with people who lived on farms, my family's house smack-dab in the middle of dairy farm central. The interesting thing is, I hated that when I was growing up. I hated being a bumpkin, being stuck in this small town atmosphere where everyone no only knew your business, but more often than not, knew it before you did. I grew up in a small neighborhood where we often joked that our neighbor's mom was a super spy, and if she was around, there was no getting away with anything!

What better plot than a character resistant to this environment, a character who managed to get away, but finds herself drawn back home after a tragedy? I felt that way myself. I hated this place I grew up in. The minute I turned eighteen, I was in the backseat of my friend John's Rabbit, hightailing it to the nearest city. Even after tragedy and circumstance brought me back to to my hometown, I promised myself for years I wouldn't stay. One day I would get out of here, but then it snaked in around me, showed its appeal. Time passed and the urge to escape didn't feel as strong as it once was, and eventually, I felt like this was where I was supposed to be.

No matter where you live, your region, your neighborhood, your weather patterns are unique to you, and they are the perfect fodder for inspiration. As I mentioned above, today I need only walk down the street in my area to find short stories and poems just waiting to be written.

So the next time you're wracking your brain for something to write, step outside and listen to the voice of your neighborhood. You might be surprised by the unique whispers of that area, and how well you can personally put those whispers into scenarios that appeal to the world. And if you're a memoir writer, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Places soak up memory, withhold the past, and as a writer you can unlock those secrets for all the world to hear.

On another note, writing what you know doesn't mean just sticking to your area, it also refers to your personal experiences. Whether you've been a soldier, a mother, a sister, a teacher, a student, a postal worker... you name it, every experience you've ever had is simply asking to be related through your work. There are characters inside all of our experiences simply begging to have their stories told. Maybe you once worked with someone who claimed they spoke with the dead, or there was an old lady that walked her cat into the post office every day to get her mail... All of these things are stories simply begging to be told.

I guess one of the reasons I'm feeling so passionate about this lately is because with all of the Hollywood film remakes, it starts to feel like there really is nothing new under the sun. The thing is, I don't buy that. I think all of our experiences in life are unique because of our unique perspectives (the same logic the movie remakers are using, I'm sure...) so even if we all lived through the same experience, our stories would be unique based on our regional upbringing, our experiences and our personality. So the next time someone says there's nothing new under the sun, look out your window. You'll see it there. I can almost guarantee it.



Rachel Cotterill said...

I've heard "write what you know" more times than I could count, and I used to dismiss it - I write fantasy after all! But then I realised that I am writing what I know, in terms of human relationships and politics, but I just need to create a setting where I can play out all the things I want to show. Hence the made-up worlds ;)

Oh, and I've started the whole travel writing malarkey, which literally is writing what I know and is more fun (and profitable!) than I'd have imagined.

Nicole Ireland said...

I've always been told the same thing as you.

I agree with you completely about the areas we live in influencing our writing. We've talked about it before.

Stephen King is a perfect example of that, as you mentioned. I know it's kind of dorky, but I get all giddy whenever I read his books and he mentions a town I know. One of the roads mentioned in one his books is exactly how he wrote about it. It has a creepy feel and has horror novel written all over it.

I do have to say, there are some things I'm not familiar with that I write about. I like a challenge therefore, I make myself learn new things so I am familiar with it.

AravisGirl said...

Writing what you know is a good idea. Course, if you don't know it, I think it's probably not too hard to find someone who does :)

Oh, and Debra White Smith is an author who lives the next county over. We read her books and they often are set in Texas and mention towns we know. Even our own :D

Jenny Beans said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this, ladies. I think that it's a great challenge to write outside your comfort zone as well, becoming an expert on whatever you wish to write about definitely falls into the writing what you know category, as far as I'm concerned.

Rachel, you mentioned fantasy... I write a little fantasy myself too, but have always thought that it was incredibly important to know the origins of those fantasies. For example, if I were to write about "faeries," even if I had plans to create my own unique spin on them as beings, I'd be at the library and bookstore grabbing every faerie book ever printed. In fact, I have quite a faerie library actually, consisting of both factual and historical tomes, as well as fiction galore.

I think one of the great things that makes fantasy authors like Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint stand out is how well they know the genre, the history and folklore. It's amazing how real the worlds they create are, and I think it has everything to do with how well-versed they are in their subject.

Again, great conversational points. I enjoyed reading your comments!