“Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”
When I was sixteen I had a massive crush on Jennifer Love Hewitt. My hormones were raging out of control at this stage but amongst all of my lurid and depraved sexual fantasies, one thing stood out: I wanted to marry this woman. The majority of my time was spent daydreaming about how I could make this happen. One of my solutions was that I’d write a bestselling novel, move to America as a famous writer, and then seduce her. The idea was stupid, but I was young, still a virgin, and I lived in a fantasy world. Within weeks I began trying to write reality. I titled the book Jenny Love — and the story was about a charming teenager who writes a bestselling novel in England and then moves to LA to hunt down a famous actress who he’s obsessed with (I wonder who that could be?). I figured if I wrote the book, life would imitate art. Headline: Bestselling author snags Hollywood star.
At some point during the writing experience I stopped liking her. I can’t remember why. I think I heard that she cheated on her boyfriend or something and because I was a puritanical self-righteous know-it-all teenager I crossed her off my wedding list. Then I changed her character in the book so that the main guy would find out he hates her halfway through and fall in love with his friend Lucy Lockett instead. The book was absolute trash, but the point is I drew from real life and turned fantasies into a reality. I didn’t know anything about LA (other than what I’d seen on the TV), and I didn’t know too much about Jennifer Love Hewitt, either, but I created a story from that seed.
I wrote what I knew, even though I actually knew nothing . . .
“The only source of knowledge is experience.” — Albert Einstein
Write what you know is one of the oldest writing rules, and it’s regularly misinterpreted. Most people, unless they’re particularly adventurous, don’t know that much. Our points of reference are small. We glean masses of information from TV and movies and books, but technically we don’t know a whole hell of a lot. If I were to only write what I know in the most explicit and literal sense, I’d write a book about masturbating and eating cheesy-pasta (not necessarily at the same time).
Writing what you know is more about drawing from your experiences to create your own world. For instance, I’ve never bungee jumped (I’d rather break my own legs with a hammer), so I don’t know how it feels to leap off a cliff into oblivion. However, I have fallen off a high wall before and I’ve been on a roller coaster which seemed to be heading for impending doom, and I’ve slipped off the top of a fence (which led to one of my fingers being severed) and I’ve experienced numerous mini death-defying moments in my life. Those are moments that I know, and I can use those to write a convincing bungee jumping scene. Fear is a universal feeling and we’ve all been attacked by it at one point in our lives (unless you’re a psychopath). If your character is in a situation loaded with fear, you don’t need to know what it feels like to be at the wrong end of a gun or blade. You can simply imagine a moment in your life when you were terrified and transfer those feelings, adapting them to the scenario at hand. It’s as simple as that.
And that can go for anything. If you’re writing a portrait of a heroin addict and want to understand about addiction, you don’t need to shoot up for two years and then attempt to quit — that wouldn’t be useful for anyone. But what you can do, alongside researching the relevant data online, is once again draw from your own well. We’re all addicted to things in small ways. For the most part we’re creatures of routine. Give up something for a month and see how it feels. Maybe you’re used to drinking coffee every morning before work. Cut that out and see how you react. Are you more agitated at work? Does something feel like it’s missing? Does it get harder as the weeks go by?
Talk to your friends too. Have they tried to give up smoking before? How did it feel? How did it affect them? The more data you collate, the wider your point of reference when you finally construct that character. And even though at no point have you had a heroin needle stuck in your arm, your account of it will most likely come across as authentic. You’ve taken feelings of addiction and blown them up in proportion to go alongside what you already know about the crippling power of heroin addiction.
But it doesn’t stop there.
“Experience is the teacher of all things.” — Julius Caesar
Delving into what you know can help with story creation too. Let’s say we break it down to the fundamentals — what do you know? For instance, if you’re a plumber, you know how to fix pipes, unclog sinks, whatever. By itself that isn’t very interesting. What else do you know? Have you ever had a noisy or irritating neighbour? Okay, so let’s throw that in there. You’re a plumber working long hours with a noisy neighbour. Have you got children? Have you ever experienced the sleepless nights that comes hand in hand with a newborn? Okay, now add that in. You’re a hardworking plumber with a newborn baby who can’t sleep because of the noisy neighbour. It’s enough to make a man mad. So let’s say, after numerous letters and calls and friendly talks with the neighbour, this man (or woman) refuses to keep it quiet upstairs. Here’s where you can fuse what you know with the story world. This is where you begin to create a reality.
Your protagonist, the gentle sleep-deprived plumber, decides to break into the neighbour’s house and mess with the pipes in revenge. Now, you wouldn’t necessarily do something like that in real life, but if you build the tension enough you can make it believable that this guy has finally snapped. Then, once you’ve found a way to get your plumber in the house (it doesn’t have to be anything groundbreaking; a spare key, a loose window, whatever), you can now once again refer to what you know.
As a plumber you most likely know how to toy with someone’s pipes and sabotage their plumbing system. Have your character do it. Maybe he feels guilty doing it; maybe he feels nothing but glee, glad to give the neighbour payback. That’s for you to choose. After that, you can go in any direction. He’s ruined the plumbing. Now what?
In a short story, you can leave it with a twist: the water floods through the ceiling and the plumber realises he’s made things worse for himself. He notes the grim irony: dealing with his baby’s nappies whilst shit drips through the ceiling from the overflowing toilet upstairs. Or perhaps you want your plumber to have a win: the neighbour offers an apology, and asks if the plumber could take a look at his (or her) pipes, unaware he’d sabotaged them in the first place. They end up on good terms and the neighbour agrees to keep the noise down in the future. Or maybe you want to go dark with it: the neighbour slips on the water of a busted pipe and cracks his skull open. The plumber is regretful, but also happy to finally get a good night’s sleep. He snuggles up to his wife and baby.
It doesn’t matter. Choose whatever ending works for your story.
The point is: you can write or create almost anything from what you know. The above probably wouldn’t win any awards for story of the year, but it’s a simple template for writing something short from your own experience. It has all the elements needed: a sympathetic main character, a desire/need (silence: so he can get a night’s sleep with his family), and a bad guy. On top of that, you’ve fused your own experiences to give the story authenticity. You can do this for anything. If you want to think broader, in novel terms, just do the same — draw from your own experiences and create something that’s both true and false. Every good piece of fiction has a truth at its core. It needs to feel real, even if we know it isn’t; even if most plumbers wouldn’t go to the lengths of sabotaging someone’s pipes for a night of sleep, it works in fiction. The audience suspend their disbelief.
So write what you know if you have to — but make it interesting.
“Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.” — Auguste Rodin
If you’re not sure how to apply the above to a novel, you do exactly the same but bigger and larger. A novel needs subplots, more depth, more layers, a story big enough that can grow over many pages. But that doesn’t mean you can’t draw from your own experience for every scene, conflict, and twisted scenario. Maybe you want to write a murder mystery from the point of view of a Private Eye but know nothing about private detectives. So? Learn a little and make up the rest. If you want, fuse your plumbing experience into it.
Maybe a plumber finds blood and hair in someone’s pipes and takes it to the private detective. Plausible? Possibly, although not likely. But you can think of something. After that, as the private detective investigates, he’ll be talking to people, asking questions, meeting a crazy cast of characters. You’ve most likely met a few cuckoo people in your time — now’s the time to pick your memory. You’ve also had people lie to you (and you’ve known they were lying; sometimes from a gut feeling, other times because they’re shifty or contradictory when they talk), so you can put that into your scenes. Your private eye thinks one of the witnesses is lying, and he’s determined to find out. The possibilities are endless. Take something small and blow it up. Make things bigger and better than real life. Just make sure they retain a truth to it.
And if you can do that, you’ll be fine. Write what you know, sure. But fuse it with what you don’t know. It’ll be more fun that way. And much more interesting to read.
Now get back to work. Those pipes won’t fix themselves.
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