#wpad blog challenge, day 24.
Next to “writing is rewriting”, this has to be the most commonly uttered phrase in the writers’ universe. What does it actually mean? I will try to look at this from two angles, facts and feeling.
I read somewhere recently that you should “write what you want to know”. I think that’s a good approach as it will make you explore your story, characters and situations as if you experience it all yourself – how it could all be happening. There may be a slight risk of getting lost in research, though, and of your script or book ending up full of new-found knowledge that may not actually be all that interesting to others. So:
Don’t kill your writing with research. Especially if it’s a field that you assume most of your audience not to be familiar with. They may indeed not be, but they may also not be all that interested in all those fascinating facts. Give them fascinating characters instead, and pepper the action with interesting facts that you have learned about.
I’m full of admiration for Umberto Eco, a highly academic and erudite author, but the only story of his I fully enjoyed is The Name of the Rose. Not because I am amazed at all he knows about life and religion and academia in the Middle Ages, but because of his characters (quite a few of which are totally over the top and most probably not based on any of Eco’s personal acquaintances).
The important point is to present a story world that is logical and convincing, whether it’s sci-fi, contemporary or historical. The logic comes from the facts you know or research or invent. But your story will only be convincing if the characters that inhabit it act convincingly. And for that you need their – and your – feelings.
“Write what you know” can’t mean that you can only write about something you have experienced yourself. If that were the case, there’d be pitifully few books and films out there. I mean, who has an interesting enough biography to make a publisher or film company spend tons of money producing it? (Apart from someone like Erin Brokovich – who did not write the screenplay to the fabulous film about herself.)
So what do you do if you don’t know how a downtrodden 19th-century woman labourer in a cotton mill feels about her work, her unemployed husband who drinks away her pay and the fact that her young children have to work and are likely to contract a lung disease? You can read “North and South” for some second-hand knowledge – third-hand, actually, as Ms Gaskell probably did not know either how Bessy Higgins felt – but more importantly, you can look for moments in your life that you can translate into your character’s emotions.
Moments when you were scared, worried, proud. Situations that tested you. People you hated, fell in love with. Something you aspire to and what you would do to get there.
You know how that feels. And that’s the place you write from.
Update: Today the New York Times published an article by Ben Yagoda,Professor of English at the University of Delaware, entitled “Should We Write What We Know?”