I started to write this a while ago, then set it aside until I read this post by Widdershins at the Clarion blog. It inspired me to dig mine back out. It’s nice to find that sometimes the conversations I have with myself are being had by other people as well.
Write what you know is one of those rules tossed about as either brilliantly true or completely ridiculous. On a literal level, it’s simpler to write about things you know. I find it much easier, for example, to write about the life of a midwife, even one in a refugee camp, than to write about a mechanic rebuilding an engine. It’s more than just an understanding of the process–it’s knowing the language and the intuitive responses that aren’t likely to be covered in an instruction manual.
But I’ve never hunted anything in my life, and I still wrote a novelette about a woman who lived to hunt. Everything about her life I drew from things I do know. I’ve tracked and studied animals, I’ve camped in a shelter I built myself, and I’ve worked with dogs and horses. I understand what it’s like to sleep outside at night, to explore the banks of a river, to feel a heavy rain on my skin.
Those details give me confidence when writing about something I haven’t experienced myself. Hopefully that confidence extends to the reader as well, allowing them to believe what they read, even if it isn’t a literal truth.
There’s more, of course. There’s the emotional framework of a story. The tools necessary for building that come from being alive in the world, from listening and watching and feeling. It’s what makes one story about a mechanic different from twelve other stories about mechanics–the motor that drives their particular set of actions.
Why have I been thinking about writing what I know? Because I’m a little frustrated about writing a novel about travel to places I haven’t been. Yes, I can look at pictures and read descriptions and watch videos. The trouble is that visual resources lack other dimensions, and written ones filter place through another writer’s senses. Smells, sounds, how the air makes your skin feel, the pebbles that your fingers can’t help but reach for…these things are deeply personal.
Place is a character that longs to shake your hand, to look into your eyes. I won’t have that intimacy this time around. It’s been forcing me to think about how important place is to me as a writer. My interiors are often weak–the number of times I’ve had to go back and add the contents of a room is embarrassing–but I could spend days writing about the world outside of doors and walls.
I could simply stick my protagonist on a plane or a train, or have her spend her time in chain motels. It’s not what I want for her, or for the story. I need her feet on the ground, the air on her skin. I want her to reach for those pebbles that feel right in her hands.
This will be interesting experiment.