Thursday, November 13, 2008

Knowing What You Know; Ya Know?

By Josi S. Kilpack

"Write what you know" is likely the most touted bit of writing advice any of us have ever heard. I don't think I've ever gone to a writer's conference and not heard at least one presenter talk about this topic. There's a reason it gets so much attention, it is a very good place for a writer to visit and become familiar with, but it's not about writing your life story. Instead, it has a variety of uses that, at different times, will come in handy. Here are a few examples, please feel free to share if you have some more advice along this line. After all, I can only write what I know, so if I don't know it someone better learn it to me:

1) What do YOU know?

Was your father a butcher? Did your grandmother tat lace? Were you forced to pull weeds as a child? Have you ever been arrested? Divorced? Dragged by a truck on icy roads in the winter? What about that vacation you took to those caves you got lost in for three hours? What about the tornado that wiped out the town twenty miles away when you were fourteen?

The point is every single one of us has a lifetime of experiences. Some are going to be similar to other people's--this is good. Shared experience allows us to communicate to other people's memories, it's a powerful tool to apply to your writing, taking full advantage of things you have in common with your readers. However, there are other things you have gone through that the typical person hasn't. My dad is a teacher. Boring. Average, right? But he's an art teacher. Not that much more interesting. He's also a sculptor with a special ability to take a two dimensional picture and transform it into a three dimensional sculpture. I grew up watching him take pounds of oil based clay (that stains your fingers and stings if you get it in your eyes) and slowly transform it bit by bit into the San Diego Chicken or Squatch. It's a phenomenol process and because I grew up around it, I know details of sculpting that most people don't know.

All of us have details like this in our lives that, if not useful in and of itself, lends us to knowing where to look for similar information. Try making a list of all the occupations, locations, talents, family situations, and household tasks you know more about than the average Joe. Keep these things in mind when creating characters, storylines, and details in your books. You might surprise yourself with how much you really know.

2) What do you KNOW?

Do you know where to go to look up the names of stars in any given constellation? Can you tell me the chemical make up of Elmer's glue? How many cups of water equate to a metric ton? How many players on Berkley's basketball team have set records in assists?

Don't know these things off the top of your head? Learn it. We are not limited by the things we already know based on our life experience. Because we are writers, we are likely very good readers, meaning we absorb information well and learn from the printed word better than most people. Take full advantage of this by continuing to learn all the time. Even if you aren't working on a project that demands research, keep your mind open to learning new things. You never know when they might come into play. And, by excersing your mind this way, you have a better chance of finding information when you need it because you have vast resources on research to go to. You might not know the name of that star, but you did read about the zodiac in that one book you found at the library six years ago. I bet you could find it in there. Julie recently blogged about this and it was a great reminder of just how awesome research can truly be.

3) WHAT do you know? (about your genre)

Did you know that in a Romance novel it's okay for the guy to be a playboy, but not the girl? Did you know that fantasy really isn't fantasy if it doesn't have magic in it? Did you know that horror is often considered the purest of all genres in regards to morals and ethics because it is, at it's core, a battle between good and evil? Did you know that even Children's books must have conflict?

Whatever it is you write, be sure to read it, and study it, and immerse yourself in it. There are rules and expectations that have to do with the contract you make with your reader and in order to be successful in that market, you need to offer up those expectations. This isn't to say that you can't provide your own twists and turns, that you can't set yourself apart from the crowd, but you must fit the parameters of your genre FIRST. There are pletny of writing books on this subject as well as very good internet articles you can find via google. Knowing what an editor, agent, or reader expects from you is a great way to start your next story.

4) What DO you know?

What if I don't know the ending? What if I don't know the first chapter? What if I don't know who dunnit? What if I don't know what color I want the carpet to be?

Well, what DO you know? Annette lyon talked about this a couple weeks ago and it pulled me out of a slump I'd been in. I want to write from page one to page 805 without stopping. I want to then start over and revise. It's what I want, but it's not reality. After Annette's advice I just starting writing what I knew. I knew, for instance, that I wanted my character to take over the kitchen. I also knew that I wanted her to find out a medical inconsistancy. And I wanted a really broody character that rubbed her wrong. I don't know who killed the guy behind the curtain and I don't know what they are trying to hide by killing him, but I know I want her to keep her jogging whistle in her pocket for protection, so I wrote that. And then I wrote this other scene, and then I wrote the really funny part. I've managed to break the 30,000 word barrier despite the fact that anyone that tried to read it right now would think I was completly bonkers because it doesn't make sense. Yet. But I have over 100 pages and that alone inspires me to continue. This week I've begun bridging those scenes to one another. I know she needs to get from the bedroom to the kitchen--how? It's coming together, not as easy and seamless as I'd like, but it IS coming together because though I don't know much, I know THIS and I'm writing it down. Don't be afraid to jump around. We live in the age of computers, lucky us!

We are more than we think we are upon first glance, and the journey of discovery often leads us to doors we didn't even know could be opened. Own the knowledge, own the power.


Lilithas said...

The last line was insanely motivating. I feel like starting to write at this very moment.

I have a dozen projects in my head, and I know my characters and know the plots, but all these projects are on hold because I simply don't know HOW - and you just helped me a bunch.

Thanks for sharing!

Danette said...

I can't tell you how inspiring your writer's blog is. I check it daily, and have for a long time. Thank you for posting the topics and advice you do. Every area is covered--so thanks.
It is funny how some book ideas come so easily and others you have to discover in time. But I have seen how writing leads you forward. The ideas slowly pop into your head and help solve that issue or conflict. Writing is labor intensive but magical at the same time.

Heather Moore said...

Great advice, Josi. I've heard "write what you know" over and over as well. Since most of my books are historical, the advice for me becomes about characterization and emotion. Like an actor would, I try to put myself into the shoes of my character and whether it's 1910 or 2010, all humans experience similar emotions--love, fear, anger, empathy . . . the time period and setting are just vehicles to present "what you know".

Pendragon Inman said...

I liked your point about being good at learning as readers. Don't know it, but wanna write it? Learn it.

That made all the difference in my WIP. My MC decided that he was going to be a swordsman, and as far as my writing was convinced, it was as pathetic as a 4 yr old swinging a baseball bat. So, I found a class and started to learn. I've gone back now and re-written some of the chapters that had those parts, and i can't believe the difference! "Writing what you know" (or in my case, knowing what you write) doesn't just take it up "a level", it kicks it up quite a few.