Writing what I know
January 26, 2011 Leave a comment
“Write what you know.” It’s a familiar phrase to anyone who has ever had an interest in writing, and to most who’ve ever had an English class. Followed to the extreme, it doesn’t always make sense, especially for fiction writers. I’m not sure how much Orson Scott Card really knows about sentient pig-like and bug-like aliens (Speaker For the Dead) or how much experience Stephen King has had with supernatural beings who take on the form of dancing clowns (It), but I’m guessing neither of them have witnessed such things first-hand. Of course, the point of most fiction is to show how people like us would respond to extraordinary circumstances, so the “write what you know” part of those stories is in creating characters who think and feel like real people encountering the fantastic.
Much of my writing has focused on themes and situations similar to those of Card and King, but lately I’ve been playing around with more mundane matters. This has been happening slowly over time, as even stories I consider science fiction have really been “about” more than just the fantastical elements. My short story, “Attachment,” currently making the rounds looking for a home, will strike a chord with my office supply store coworkers and anyone else who works in a retail or sales position. “Empty Chair” is a ghost story, but there’s a lesson there that’s very important in the real world.
I’m currently working on a story that’s not slated to have any real elements of science fiction or fantasy, which is pretty rare for me. As such, I’m a little more nervous about how it’s going to be received than I am my other work. This new one also hits a lot closer to home than anything I’ve ever done, and I’m struggling a lot just getting the words out, even though the story itself more or less popped into my head whole cloth. A few people who are close to me will recognize themselves in it immediately, although not completely, both out of respect for them and the needs of the story, and I’ll be sure to let those people read it to get their feedback. I know writers use the experiences of those around them as fuel for their stories all the time, but this story is so personal and painful that I feel like I owe a first reading to them.
It’s funny that back in the day, when I first started realizing I wanted to be a writer, I had these long-term fantasies about where I would be, career-wise, at different stages in my life. None of those have come true, of course, as 25 years or more into it I’m still struggling to find even a moderate amount of success. But I never imagined that I would have been interested in writing stuff that didn’t take place on a spaceship, or on another world, or that didn’t involve some form of time travel or ray gun. It’s not really a new direction for me, as the novel that I hope to kick start (again) and eventually get published features all of those elements. But I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about truth and What Really Matters lately, and I think “writing what I know” will help me express a lot of my thinking on those subjects. Hopefully, the experience will translate to my science fiction as well. People don’t read Orson Scott Card to hear what he has to say about pig-aliens, after all.