Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Write what you know

As I contemplate and plan my first novel I have found the process thoroughly absorbing. While a novel is the goal, I am currently more intrigued by the process as I dip my little toe in the waters of the writers world. I would love to say 'immerse' but, apart from being arrogant, it would do a huge injustice to those people who have spent decades of their lives developing and honing their skills. 
I love the documentaries about the making of movies. The actors talk about their characters in the movie as if they are real people - their inner turmoil, prejudices, passions and key motivators. Actors understand the importance of indwelling a character. 
Successful writers instinctively understand the importance of crafting real characters. Actually, I detect that  there are at least two distinct character development skills at play but more about that in a later blog. 
Right now I want to explore the first rule of writing that most people are familiar with - write what you know. 
Let me say up front that what I say on this blog about writing is merely my first glance interpretation of how the various skills and tools interact. It will probably seem incredibly naive to seasoned writers, like my buddy Fiona Coward who started on this process many years ago. That's okay. I hope that in years to come I myself find it cringeworthy. Some may call it embarrassing. I like to think of it as personal growth. If my perception hasn't moved on it means I am either incredibly perceptive or I am simply as naive as when I started. 
"Write what you know." What does that mean? If you are an engineer should the story be about engineers or orbit around the axis of their experiences? It could, but I believe the injunction encapsulated in those  four simple words has much broader scope. 
Firstly, there is an implication to not write about what you do not know. For example, if I decided to write a plot set in Elizabethan England I would be on a hiding to nowhere. I could Google "Elizabethan England facts" and get a handful of shallow detail that I could weave into the story - cruel punishments for inconsequential 'crimes', wreaths of garlic to keep germs at bay, etc.. However it would lack the attention to detail that would breathe life into the scenes. Furthermore, anyone even remotely familiar with the period would quickly reassign your book  to the section of the library marked 'humour'.
   The thing that consumes most of our time on daily basis does not define what we know. For example, Doug is an engineer. That's not all he knows. He could also be an amateur adventurer, a husband, a father of a member or the PTA. We know a lot more than we think we know. We understand love, fear, hunger and uncertainty, to mention a few. Draw on those experiences and emotions when writing them into your story. 
  Now for a twist. There are those who say the guideline of 'write what you know' is problematic as it builds barriers and limits would-be authors who consider themselves boring. 
I have been surprised at the interest in fantasy. I have no appetite for the genre but apparently it is served up on huge buffet tables with queues of people waiting to select their poison from a surfeit of choice. 
The beauty of fantasy is that the author knows everything about that world and its people's. I imagine however, that it take an enormous amount of skill to build and populate that world in the mind of the reader. Lack of appetite aside, I don't have the skills to attempt that. 
   I am going with a far simpler approach. My story will take place in a contemporary setting - Jo'burg, 2014. I live here and now so I know the setting. That's one hurdle less for me to navigate. 

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