Writing What You Know, or What You’ve Lived (post by Anna)

Writing What You Know, or What You’ve Lived (post by Anna)

Posted by on Mar 20, 2016 in Anna's Posts, Research, Writer's Life |

Every writer, and many non-writers, have heard this advice. Write what you know. But what does it really mean? If you write about elves or vampires or aliens, then writing what you know may seem a difficult task. Then again, maybe you’ve been abducted by aliens or met an elf — who am I to judge? J But seriously, taking “write what you know” literally leads to boring stories. This advice shouldn’t always be taken literally, though. Instead of struggling to always write what they’ve experienced, good writers take those experiences and use them as basis to create fictional scenarios and to inform their characters’ actions.

So how does this work? Well, take my experiences over the past five days. A winter storm that was expected to drop a few inches of snow turned into a massive event that dumped over a foot of wet, heavy snow. As I write this, my electricity is out again, and has been for two hours now. Repeated outages hit Wednesday, followed by 19 hours of no power on Thursday, and a couple hours on Friday. I’m writing this thanks to a backup battery connected to my computer, which gives me just over an hour of juice — but only for my satellite Internet modem. Luckily, I charged up my laptop overnight so I have the means and the energy to finish my blog post, two days later than usual, before I have to shut things down again.

Does this experience mean my next book will feature a power outage? Maybe. But that would be taking the old advice literally. Being without power reveals other things too. For instance, I live out in the boonies, which means power outages cut me off from civilization in many ways. During the 19-hour outage, I read by the light of oil lamps until the sun came up that morning, and that experience made me think about what life was like for my ancestors who had no electricity. I’ve got pioneer blood in me, courtesy of my ancestors who emigrated from Germany in the 1800s and became Michigan pioneers.

I’m finishing up research for a Highland time travel romance in which my 21st-century heroine gets hurled back in time to 15th-century Scotland. I now have a good, recent experience with being thrust into ye olden days. I’ll have an easier time crawling into my heroine’s head, thanks to a St. Patrick’s Day snowstorm. I now know if you blow out on oil lamp without the glass case on it, embers from the wick will blow off it — but they don’t catch anything on fire. One landed on my dog’s foot and he didn’t even notice! That’s something you can learn only through experience.

Write what you know. Write what you’ve lived. Write what you’ve felt. That’s what the old advice means.

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