“Start With What You Know.”

There’s a quote (attributed to Mark Twain) that encourages writers to “write what you know”. Depending on where you’re at as a writer, this can be intimidating and questions will chase themselves ’round and ’round your mind as you stare at a blank page.

What do I know? How can I make others believe that I know about zero-gravity, if I’m not an astronaut? What if I fail at writing a good story? What if I suck at writing about even the most simplest things I know?

True story – been there, done that. Even now, I still go through this period of self-doubt, but I’ve also developed skills and tools to ignore that Negative Nancy and do the necessary work. Eventually, you will, too.

So, about Mr. Twain’s quote.

My interpretation of ‘write what you know’ is this – start with what you know and build on that.

Take the idea that is circling around and approach it with curiosity.

Let’s say you’ve got this amazing idea about a girl who loves horses. Are you familiar with horses? If so, you’ve got a good start on how to approach your story. Write everything down as it comes to you, keep a running list of thoughts, ideas and questions to come back to for revision. [1] Some of it will make its way into your story, some will not.

If you’re not familiar with horses, keeping a list is also a good idea. Start by writing down what you think you might know. Then keep a separate list for any questions that come up.

A visit to local riding stable would be in order – there are barn hands, trainers and riding instructors to talk with. Make sure you have an appointment ahead of time, show up prepared with questions and dress in proper attire (this would include jeans and heavy duty, closed-toed shoes), they will be more than happy to assist you. [2] There may be more than one visit to the barn – especially if you fall in love with a particular equine with soft brown eyes.

Perhaps your character is just as unfamiliar with horses as you are. This would make the story a shared journey between you and your character as both of you learn about horses. [3] And, by extension, the reader would be going along on this journey of loving and learning what it is to be around horses.

***

[1] Keeping an ongoing list is helpful – keeping a story journal is even better.

[2] This suggestion still applies even if you are familiar with horses – it will give an added depth and texture to your story.

[3] There are some schools of thought that this is not the wisest route, but as far as I’m concerned, there is no wrong way to write a story.

“What’s In A Name?”

Even by a different name, a rose would smell just as sweet, according to William Shakespeare.

Part of the magic of character development lives in the name you choose.  This crosses all genres and can make a character go from ordinary to eclipsing his or her creator. [1]   Scarlett O’Hara would probably not have been so memorable if her name had been Sally.

There are a great many resources for finding names – from Google to baby naming books, you can always find something that will suit your characters.  What makes name research even more fun is discovering the meaning behind them, particularly when the name lends itself to both the character’s journey and the story itself.  This is most important for your hero or heroine, but the secondary characters can also benefit from this type of care.

I will offer a word of caution, however – there will be times when one character refuses to like any of the names chosen for him (or her).  He (or she) will be accepting of it for one draft, but when you go in to revise, the name no longer suits.  This has only happened once, in my own experience, and that particular character was so dissatisfied with his name, that I changed it twelve times. [2]  In the process, he changed his nationality, as well, which was interesting and unexpected, to say the least.

Regardless of what genre you choose to write in, the name you give your characters will not only enhance the story, but add a certain depth, as well.  

 

[1]  The most famous of these characters is Sherlock Holmes, whom creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to despise – so much so, he killed the character off in The Final Problem.  Public opinion, of course, encouraged the return of the memorable sleuth.

[2]  His current name is satisfactory – it’s not only delicious to roll off one’s tongue, it’s quite playful and suggests a fun, sexy and sensitive nature.

“What Year Is It, Anyway?”

A few years ago, I read a mystery that had a very modern and contemporary feel to it, both in the language and the narrative.  Nowhere in the book’s description or within the context of the story did it clarify the time period.  I’d read perhaps six chapters before it became clear that it was set in the Old West, and not in the year 2012.  Not long after that, I lost interest, put the book down and have since forgotten both title and author.

Why did I put the book down, after investing enough time to have read six chapters?  I wanted to give the book a fair chance, even though I was continually trying to pinpoint the When of the world within that story.  And when a simple thing (like establishing the time period) takes more than one paragraph, let alone fifty pages, I’m removed from that world completely.  The effort to try and go back in is no longer worth it.

When writing fiction, be it a long or short narrative, it is important to immediately establish the context of the when, the where and the why.  This is especially important when the setting of your story is historical.  Whether it’s the Old West, Ancient Athens or turn of the century London, as soon as your reader opens to the first page, that world must come to life and engage all five senses – smell, sound, sight, touch, taste.  The goal, by doing this, is to engage the reader so deeply that they can’t turn the pages fast enough.    

Your job as a writer is to create a world so rich, so detailed, so inviting, that it takes your reader out of this world. 

And leave them wanting more.

There’s Always Time to Write

Like any other art form (or non-art skill), writing takes discipline.  This requires not just studying the craft by reading various styles, genres and authors, but actually sitting your butt down in a chair and putting pen to paper. [1]  This also means carving out a segment of time (such as an hour) at a particular time of day, where you can write, uninterrupted.  

Do you enjoy rising before the sun, taking in the cool air and early morning sounds as the world begins to wake itself up?  

Take a moment and look at that habit – can you fit an hour to write during that time, while enjoying your coffee or tea?  If so, you’ve found your time to write!

Or do you find that it is evening when you’re most creative, after the noise of the day and you’re in the little sanctuary of home?

Again, find that hour, bring tea to fortify yourself (or other favorite beverage) and let the words flow from your pen! [2]

You may feel that you’re being non-productive at first, especially if no words come, but that’s where having discipline comes in.  The more you show up for yourself by creating the habit, the easier it will become to find the words.

You’ve got this – I have faith in you.

 

[1]  Or fingers to keyboard, if using a computer is your preference.

[2]  Don’t worry if there times when you find writing even one word is problematic – staring into space is part of the process.

The Story Idea Box

On a shelf in my bookcase, there is an old shoe box, where I deposit all kinds of items that I find as I go about my day.  They are, to the casual eye, mundane in nature and unremarkable to anyone but myself, and range from a broken pair of glasses to a phone number that had yet to be assigned by the phone company. [1]  Each item is a mysterious talisman, a little bit of manna from heaven that can lead me down the rabbit-hole of a story.

But what is most intriguing to me is the brief note and postcard left inside a book.

While browsing the local library bookshop, I came across a hardcover edition of In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote.  Having never read it, I pulled it off the shelf and opened it.  A folded note and a postcard featuring the Cartwrights of Bonanza! fell out.

The note was written to a woman named Leslie, in which the author expressed gratitude for the cost of a plane ticket (which she caught with twenty minutes to spare) and a wig.  The rest of the note mentioned a visit and some work via the computer, as well as reimbursement for the ticket.  There was no date, no reference to which side of the coast the author had visited, but the magic was done.

What prompted the author of the note to get a wig and why was she in a rush to catch a flight?

And thus, the beginning of a mystery – or a thriller – or even a tale of horror – has been set.

Where does it lead?

Only you, my dear writer, can answer that.

And now, it’s time to begin your own Story Idea Box.

 

[1] There’s a story behind that mysterious, unassigned phone number, but that’s for a later post.

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