Write What You Know: Letting Real Life Drive and Influence Your Writing

Here’s something we all know, but somehow forget every once and a while: behind the characters, behind the plot, behind the conflict, there’s a real person, with a real life (okay, possibly for a given definition of ‘real life’). J

Our writing comes from us, sometimes whether we realize it or not. If you’re angry, ever notice how even your characters seem to be in a bad mood? Have you ever extracted revenge on someone in your story? Untwisted in a plot some issue you read about everyday in the paper that makes you furious?

If you haven’t, you should.

What I’m encouraging is not to simply document your everyday, mundane life in your writing: that’s a journal, and for people who have very interesting lives, this might make an interesting book or read, but for the rest of us, just a snore-fest. What I’m talking about is letting real things in your lives – things that matter, like how it feels to fall in love, to be afraid of death, to truly feel and live – letting these important events and feelings color your writing.

I’m certainly not the first to suggest this: I first heard the idea made clear from a bestselling author at a conference (Eloisa James, if you’re curious). But as I started to feel real-life was interfering with my ability to write, the idea returned to me. Why not try to use the challenges I’m facing in real life as fodder for drama and conflict in some of my fiction?

Life changes and twists all the time, bringing new challenges, new joys, new frustrations. The rhetoric and mud-slinging in a recent municipal election (for a city I don’t actually live in anymore) makes my blood boil, as one example. So, indeed some of my characters may face challenges against rhetoric that makes them furious. That’s the easy choice. But what about trying to see the other side? What would lead to mud-slinging and rhetoric other than fear? What if … ah, you see where this is going. Play with the emotion, let your characters (if accurate) feel them, and then consider the most wonderful “what if” factor. What if you were looking at the issue from the other side? How do you think it might make you feel?

Of course, I am in no way suggesting you don’t get to write fiction anymore, you don’t get to explore situations you’ve never been in. By all means, fly off and invent another universe if you wish! Nor, indeed, will all of your characters be like you. But that doesn’t mean sometimes you can’t understand how they might feel. I have never been an army commander, nor a spoiled president’s daughter, nor a werewolf. But I am a human who has felt and feared things, and I can use this and my experiences to try to feel what my characters might feel – and by doing so help my readers do the same. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t, sometimes you’ll just have to make it up (yay fiction!).

But sometimes, by sharing something that tore out your guts, sharing the disgust, the terror, the whatever-it-made-you-most-secretly-feel, you just might be able to help someone else imagine feeling it too, and create a connection. Could there be a more wonderful thing?

“They” say write what you know (I’m sure you’ve heard it). You may not actually know what it feels like to live in a historical setting, or fly a spaceship, or start a war. But you do know how it feels to be afraid, to be excited, to live and breathe, to BE. Why not share some of this with your characters and readers?

Have you ever done this before? What were your experiences?

What counts as forward motion?

This seems a fitting title for today’s blog since along with many other foibles, it’s been ages since I posted anything.

Today is inspired by the passing of bestselling author, Belva Plain. She published her first novel when she was 59, followed by over 20 more in subsequent years.

This inspired me to consider: what constitutes forward motion or progress? I’ve been writing since I was a child, seriously pursuing publication for about the past six years or so. I don’t know that much about Belva Plain (did she discover writing later in life? How long did she want to be published before she was published? Etc). However, it made me think: what if I’m not published until I’m in my fifties (another 20 some years)? What if I sit down and write each and every day, consistently, continue to improve my craft, submit to agents and editors, etc, but it simply takes me until I’m in my fifties before I see one of my books in print? Do I only truly progress in my writing career once I’m accepted for publication?

I want to say – and I’m fairly sure I believe – that answer is “no.” Even if I’m not published, if I sit down and continue to write, if I am committed to my career as a writer, I’m still a writer, published or not. By continuing to write, I hone my commitment and my craft: what I write now will not (or should not) necessarily be as good as something I write later on. I should continue to evolve and learn about my craft, my voice, my own particular writing the more I write.

Any hesitation to unequivocally say my career progresses so long as I write arises from the same place which causes cringes when someone asks me what I do, and when I say I write, they want to know what I’ve published. That is, what worth can my writing have if it hasn’t already been accepted for publication? “Clearly” it’s a mere hobby unless it’s making money.

Aha! The crux of the matter: money. Can I have a career as a writer- and consider any progress I make in said career – if I’m not yet making money at it? I can hear shouts of yes and no from the many other writers I’ve met, books I’ve read, elsewhere, leaving me still somewhat undecided.

What do you think? Is a career a career if you’re not yet making money at it? Perhaps is the issue simply the classification of “career” rather than “calling” or so forth?

I’d love to hear your comments. But before I say farewell for today, one more thought on Belva Plain. The brief note of her passing says she was first published at 59, and passed in her home last Tuesday at 95. I would like to think for much of the time between first being published and her passing she was still writing. Because in the end, as a writer, that’s how I’d like to live out the last of my days.