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?