WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
“Who’s joking? You wouldn’t think it was so disgusting if you had a few minutes alone with me,” Matthew carries on with a slimy leer, adding what I’m guessing is a foul name for me that I’ve never heard before. I’ll have to ask Charlotte if she knows its meaning later.
Lowly, p. 29
I bet you my Baby Groot plushie that English teachers have told you to write “what you know.”
I certainly have. For me, the thought has not only made sense but has also been as sticky as honey dripping from a buttery biscuit. One can detect fiction with authenticity, after all. So when I decided to write fiction, and teen fiction to boot, I took a needed journey back in time to the sometimes good, sometimes bad place of personal experience.
Before I got started, however, I decided to ask some questions of and set a few ground rules for myself. Like these:
1. What have I experienced that could be turned into a compelling story?
I knew I wanted to write young adult fiction and a novel-length work. It was a matter of seconds before my brain produced the subject of bullying, something I had personally faced as a teen. It didn’t take much longer for me to decide that I eventually wanted my main character to morph into the bully, and because of my entrenched spiritual beliefs, the concept of her seeking forgiveness was a close third. This resonated with me. I love stories where people mess up and then turn it around later, like Emma in Jane Austen’s Emma or Peter in the Bible.
2. Will writing this help or hurt me? How about others?
If you’re a student, discuss the first question with a parent, guardian, and/or trusted mentor; they can assist you in working through the potential repercussions. Then you’ll be ready to tackle the second.
To give an example, the answer was a resounding “help” when I asked myself whether I felt the book might benefit others. My motives were good—I wanted to encourage young people being bullied or in other bad situations to seek help, an action I wish I had taken when I was going through it.
I had no desire to get anyone back for something that happened long ago. In fact, I have forgiven the people who bullied me and prayed for their well-being. I thought long and hard that if this book were published, it would remind a few people of the students who bullied me. At several points, I wasn’t sure if I should publish the story to protect them. After further deliberation, I realized that the characters in my book were not the people who bullied me. Although they shared some aspects of my real-life bullies, in my story they had actually become more representative of a type of bullying that occurs and has occurred at many times and places. In other words, I felt the bullies in Lowly were universal and not so original after all. So overall, I felt my purpose for the book was good and a go.
3. How will it help? In other words, what is your end goal?
I touched on this above, but I hope getting the book to a wider audience will not only entertain, but also encourage those being hurt to seek help. And to seek it diligently! This is the time to be heard—shout if you must. I also hope for those who have hurt others to realize they can turn things around and seek forgiveness. Another huge goal was to start a career as a writer.
To sum up the above points: if you’re considering writing fiction based on your individual history, I recommend that you take time to think about which of your experiences will make a powerful story. Then consider whether sharing your story will help or hurt you and others, and if the answer is help, how it will help. Knowing not every author will agree with me on this, I still believe that with the privilege of writing, as with so many other opportunities in our life, comes responsibility.
So what practical advice would I give someone with the goal of writing fiction from personal experience? What’s next? I would love to share some things that benefitted me as I worked on this project.
First of all, and as I mentioned above, take the time to think about things you’ve experienced and how you might be able to turn one into a story that you love. Begin by sitting in front of your computer screen, whiteboard, or with a notepad and jotting down ideas. Time is not your enemy. This doesn’t have to be a rushed process. For me, it was fairly quick, but it’s okay for you to reflect. This is a pure and simple brainstorm, and the best way to do it may not look the same for you as it does for another writer.
Furthermore, and I realize not everyone will have this as a goal, but I wanted to preserve a time and place from my youth. If you plan on setting your story in a period in your past as I did, find a friend or family member who lived it with you to bounce ideas and remembrances off. This was super fun for me. One of my best friends has an outstanding memory and was able to contribute details and incidences that I had long forgotten. It even helped to trigger my memory.
It would not be anyone’s first choice of place to spend their prized downtime, but it’s all we’ve got at Sunset other than the pecan grove where the smokers congregate out back. Lowly p. 44
If I hadn’t taken the time to start writing and reminisce with an old friend, stirring up long dormant memories, I wouldn’t have remembered the pecan grove (yes, we had one.). That pecan grove—it provided some much-needed irony to my story.
My friend was also able to validate and corroborate that the bullying was as bad as I thought it had been. We even talked over the slang we used at the time, and as an early reader, she would point out things that she felt were out of place or time.
I also did Internet research and drove around Dallas, my setting, to see if things I had written into the story would work. Yes, the storm drains near the house I grew up in Oak Cliff are deep enough for a small child to crawl into and get stuck. Scary, right?
Did I get all the details perfect? Nope. The restaurant I described near Southern Methodist University did not exist until several years after this time. But the beauty of writing realistic fiction is that it’s just that—made up. Unlike a documentary or textbook, actuality bends to fit the narrative. In fact, you might want to make your setting entirely different than the one that’s triggering your story. Choose knights and castles, spaceships and Martians, or cowboys riding their trusted horse through dusty tumbleweeds. If it’s based on known history like the latter, however, research your chosen time and place on the Internet. Talk to people who lived, say, during the 1960s in Detroit, Michigan. Read books detailing the period. Even so, whatever time and place you pick, if you write from experience, the authenticity of your prose will shine through in the dialogue and action.
I’ll soon share more of my thoughts on this subject. In the meantime, keep reading, reviewing, and writing “what you know.”
Authors (Me! Me! Me!) appreciate that stuff after all.
Be sure to join us here tomorrow to hear more from Laura about how to write what you know.