“Write what you know” is probably the most hackneyed phrase spoken in writing classes.
Some people think the statement is way off base. How can you write a futuristic science fiction tale if you’ve never flown in a rocket?
I think these people are taking the statement too literally. Or perhaps teachers aren’t explaining it well enough.
I think you can take practically anything you know, and it apply it to any genre. And, I think writing what you know is also the easiest way to make your words seem completely realistic to the reader.
I have a personal example:
I was nine when my grandfather died.
He and I were close, even in the last years of his life, when, jailed by his broken body, he sat confined in a wheel chair. The numerous surgeries that reduced him to this half-life also removed his ability to speak. He communicated with pencil and paper: jagged scribbles made by a stroke-palsied hand, punctuated with slashed underlines when he couldn’t make himself understood.
His sudden death surprised me.
I’m sure the adults saw it coming, but I hadn’t been privy to those hushed and furtive conversations about Grandpop’s condition.
It rained the day of his funeral, making the church gloomy with darkened, stained-glass windows. Cloying incense filled the church, the funeral rites seemed interminable, and the priest droned on.
I remember standing on the steps of the church afterward, waiting for the coffin to be loaded into the hearse. The moment the pall bearers pushed the coffin outside the double doors, the clouds broke and a sunbeam burst through. I had a sudden feeling that Grandpop was finally at peace.
So, what do I know? And how can I apply that to my writing?
- The antiseptic smell of a hospital, the quiet discussion of visitors, the squeak of a nurse’s shoe on tile set the scene for a horror story.
- So too does the odor I remember: the gauze-wrapped wounds, the paper tape, iodine or some other chemical…and the decay of a body still living.
- The hospital-room machinery seemed space-age through the eyes of a child. As an adult I can write about the digital displays, the symphony of beep and whine and hum of the collected devices, and the intent of the machinery in a science fiction tale. I can extrapolate what I remember into futuristic appliances — decision making robots, even — which not only perform a dedicated task but make decisions about the patient’s care.
- I’ve used portions of my grandfather’s graveside service for a funeral in one of my fantasy stories. The weather alone sets the scene: a sunny internment preceded by pouring rain and a single ray of sun.
- Finally: in any genre, I can use the emotions. To my nine-year-old self, my relationship to my grandfather was nothing out of the ordinary. I accepted his disabilities because it was, for the most part, the only way I’d known him. Though I missed him, I even accepted his death as the next stage of his life.
On the other hand, I remember my grandmother’s tremendous grief, her stoic bravery in public and her weeping in private. I remember her saying that she could not live without my grandfather, and realizing that a large part of her spirit did, in fact, die with him.
I remember witnessing the numbness of others in the family.
Any of these emotions can be attributed to the characters in my stories, either singly or as a composite.
Here’s Your Prompt: Dissect your life. Choose a memory that stands out as the most exciting, or most monumental, or even, most sorrowful. Journal your memory. What do you remember seeing or hearing? Did it take place inside or outside? What was the weather like? While you’re writing, include details and imagery from all five senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling).
When you’re finished, review what you’ve written as a basis for a story. What details can be extrapolated or built upon and used in a different scenario or setting? What were you feeling at the time that could be attributed to a character? Can you use anything in a story you’re writing now?