The first tip that I’d like to give aspiring writers or to anyone who writes is that you should write what you know. And isn’t that wonderfully vague?
Writing what you know is great because you’re an expert on it already. If you’ve been married for thirty-odd years, you have the experience and the authority to talk about married life in a way that I, as a twenty-something single girl, don’t. I have never been married and I, most certainly, don’t know what it takes to keep a marriage going for that long. I can guess or read articles and psychological papers about it, but I won’t honestly know until I experience it myself. In this case, my imagination is only going to take me so far. When your imagination starts to fail, that’s when you start to lose your reader. The suspension of their disbelief is shattered, and they’re going to start yelling things at your writing.
When I first heard this advice, I felt a little discouraged as I will never be a firefighter or a police officer, an Olympic athlete, etc. So how can I write about something I will never become or know about? You do it through research and by research I don’t mean a quick glance at Wikipedia. This means going through everything from admission standards for their programs (which is the best teaching institute, what do they need to do to graduate?), internships they may have to do, testing – physical, mental, oral, how long they’re in school for, what’s the competition like for that field, are there jobs afterwards, what do they do at their positions on a day-to-day basis and how does all this affect them physically, psychologically, mentally? And if you’re lucky enough to know someone in the profession that you want to write about then tap that resource and ask them as many questions that they allow you. If you’re fortunate you may talk them into, or they offer, to let you shadow them for a day.
You’re going to have to do the same thing for setting and different periods. You’re going to want to look at the culture, politics, history – whether the story is taking place in the past or the present, the climate, weather patterns, disasters, etc. of that area before you set your story there. Plus you should know details about the forests, bayous, deserts, grasslands, tundras, or whatever that a local would know – or as a character starts to figure out as they make that place their home. If you have a friend in that area, again ask them about it or even better yet go there yourself! (Damn it! Just what I needed; a reason to travel!)
I learned this useful tip in a writing group I was in while I went to university. We’d meet once a week and critique each others’ work. I was getting feedback on a potential story I was planning to write. I was placing it in the American South, specifically Louisiana, during World War Two. For research, I’d done the bare minimum of looking at Wikipedia, and that’s it. Apparently, it showed, and our presiding professor called me on it. The conversation roughly went like this:
Jay: “Why does it have to be in the American South?”
Me: “Further in the story, I’m going to use the cultural history and mysticism.”
Jay: “Why can’t you have it here in Alberta? We have our own culture and mysticism. Placing your story in the American South is a cliche, especially if you’re only placing it in the south for its culture and mysticism.”
Me: “I never thought of putting it in Alberta.”
Jay: “You know Alberta, it’s history, it’s culture. It’s easier for you to write about something you know than what you don’t know. Your readers are going to appreciate something unique and believable. If you don’t research it correctly, then they won’t believe the setting or context. They’ll like it more when it’s something you know about and appreciate.”
Since that conversation, I’ve been writing what I know. Instead of making up things about a place that I’ve never gone to, I can write about Calgary and the area around Calgary confidently because it’s something I know intimately. The coolest thing about it is listening to people squeal in delight when they notice landmarks they have passed, or they understand the exact problem I’m talking about. I get to teach other people who aren’t from Calgary what Calgary is really like. I also write from my personal experiences. I use the emotions from those experience to enrich a scene. The feelings are genuine and not forced or fake. I use character traits from my friends and family in my characters, which makes them more believable and real. I find that my writing is at its best when I write (corny cliche warning!) from the heart.
That’s it for this week! I hope you found this helpful.