Monday, May 9, 2016

Why Writing What You Know is Not the Same as Playing it Safe

I last wrote about deciding the sub-genre of my story and deciding whether my sleuth had a Watson. In this post, I will talk a bit on what it means to "Write what you know."

Advice I've read countless times, as I'm sure most writers have, is "Write what you know."

I think some writers take this to mean "Write about your experiences." My cousin James Carroll certainly did that in his semi-autobiographical novels, such as Memorial Bridge, and his biographical book American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us. But I believe writing about your experiences has a broader meaning.

If you're not an arachnophobe yourself, it may seem tough to write about someone terrified by a spider hanging over them by a slender thread. But if you have ever been deeply frightened, you do know how to write about your heart pounding in your chest and finding it hard to catch your breath. If you can recall how you felt nauseous and shaky after the fear began to subside, you know how to write how someone felt after getting away from that spider. If you've ever imagined some terrible possibility you panicked over, only to have it not come to pass, you can describe a phobia. These, at least to me, are all about writing what you know.

I've started drafting initial chapters of my mystery, which has a working title of The Voices Cried Deception. In the first chapter, I described how disembodied voices spoke from behind Evelyn Malsage, narrating her life to her ears only. That I've experienced, and its anywhere from annoying to deeply disturbing. But I had to use my imagination to give her delusions that I've never had. Since I have believed things in that past that turned out to be true, I knew how to write some of her delusions. All I had to do was think of something a little absurd that involved an assumption of malicious intent. Evelyn, for example, keeps the television that was a recent Christmas present turned to the wall because she knows Google and others watch people through their televisions. That makes this a great delusion is that I've read stories about Web-connected smart TVs with cameras being hacked to observe people without their knowing. A good delusion has a grain of plausibility to it.

In case I'm not making my point clear, it's this: Writing what you know does not mean safely sticking to your experience and direct knowledge. It means using your experience and knowledge to help you imagine a circumstance well enough to vividly and credibly describe it, even though you've never experienced that circumstance.

When I catch cases of it while writing my murder mystery, I will write about when I describe experiences that were new to me while still writing what I know.

Well, back to writing more of my first draft. I hope I've said something that helps you write your own mystery.

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