“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.

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[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 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.

Research Can Be Fun

When one hears the word research, it is not often connected to the word fun.  It automatically conjures up the image of surrounding oneself with dusty tomes in a poorly lit room, away from distractions of the world outside.  Or of scientists in remote castles wanting to play the role of God by re-animating a corpse.  Or students groaning over an assignment that requires five legitimate sources that does not include Wikipedia.

Despite my own initial dismay at having to do the work needed, I actually enjoy the act of research.  Whether it includes reading on topics I’m not familiar with (or have a passing knowledge of), I love learning.  Even though my own writing is primarily fiction, I want to make sure that my facts are accurate.  This is especially the case if I’m writing about a time period or area I did not live in.  Or, if there’s a life experience that I do not have, I make sure to read and ask questions so that I have at the very least a basic understanding.

Research can be done in a variety of ways (reading, asking questions of people in relevant fields, or even learning a skill), so it doesn’t have to be viewed as a boring and burdensome task.  If you approach it with the view that what you learn is as valuable as a 15th century gold doubloon (which it is), then once the initial dismay passes (which it will), then the ensuing action becomes a hunt for treasure (which knowledge always is).

What you turn up may surprise you in countless ways that you did not foresee.

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