Laura P. Angaroni, author of Lowly, shared some questions to consider when you “write what you know.” She is back today with some more thoughts on this powerful way to bring authenticity into your writing.
Check out Part I, in case you missed it.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
1. In Part I of my article I mentioned
A. Writing what you know
C. Jotting down ideas
D. All of the above
E. None of the above
F. Do you really care?
The answer is (most likely) F, but let’s carry on anyway.
So one way to further the genuineness of your story may be to ask yourself if what you plan to write is “real.” I don’t mean from a factual standpoint. We’re talking about fiction. I mean from an honesty standpoint. If you’re going to use your experience to guide you in writing fiction, be honest with yourself about who you were, who they were, and what happened. Then think about how and why that will stay the same or change to make up your story. And if you’re broaching a tough subject, get ready for surgery (minor or major) because you need to take some time to relive it.
When you do start writing, think about what a character’s motivation may be. Every character you develop will have a piece of you in them, anyway, so consider why they are doing the things they are doing in your narrative. Even the unpleasant characters have a backstory—their motivations don’t have to be fully explored for you to write them, but it will help. This will give your work a logical feel. A reader will think that what they’re reading makes sense. For example, and as I mentioned, I was verbally bullied in junior high and high school in a manner similar to the opening quote in Part I of this article. The wording is not exact. In fact, the teens who bullied me were much more creative and vulgar in their insults than the bullies I portrayed in the book.
As an aside and to further illuminate my earlier surgery comment, I pulled some punches in the sections with that kind of verbal bullying because one of the toughest things about writing Lowly for me was to relive those kinds of words. However, thinking through the motivations of all my characters helped me to root out any lingering unforgiveness in my heart toward the people who hurt me. There was little left, but every now and then it reared its ugly head when I least expected, especially whenever my children experienced peer rejection or bullying. Man, would I see red! We should be upset by injustice, wrong, or hurt of any kind; but it sometimes helps in processing it to realize how unhappy the perpetrator most likely is. This thought might not help you for a long, long time, but remember—they’ve almost certainly been on the receiving end of that behavior, too.
There’s another facet of taking the time to “relive” it while writing. Several years ago when I was volunteering at our local elementary school library, I attended an author talk. The author, a former teacher, took the students through an exercise asking them to close their eyes and envision a puff of flour in the air. He then asked them to describe it. He wanted them to use their minds to see the action first and then put it into words. I love this technique, and it’s worked for me. For example:
We walk into the den/kitchen combo, and she’s so startled by our approach, she drops the head of lettuce she’s holding. It bounces from the countertop to the floor and rolls toward our feet, all to the accompaniment of “The Long and Winding Road.” Earley acts as if he’s going to kick it, but Grace makes a hurried noise of objection and rushes around the countertop to retrieve it from where it rests in front of us.
She stoops down, grabs the lettuce, places it under one arm, straightens, and grabs me with the other.
Lowly p. 136
“Grab her, Michelle!” Kim shrieks. I see that Michelle’s about to follow Kim’s urging, so I run like lightning toward the stairs. I’m not going to let them corner me again!
As I skid to grab the banister at the top of the stairs, I see George on the landing below and remember he was going to meet me at my locker….
Lowly p. 140
Let’s face it. If I hadn’t thought through the action and poor Lola hadn’t grabbed that banister at the top of the stairs, her momentum would cause her to fly off the top step, land hard about midway down, and tumble the rest of the way to the landing, potentially causing both she and George a trip to the hospital. Then my reader would never learn why he broke up with Michelle, revealed in the next few paragraphs.
One cautionary note, and something I always need to keep in mind, don’t let too much detail detract from your story either. It’s a balancing act, one I’m still learning, but the more you practice writing, the more you’ll catch this when it happens and be able to correct it.
Lastly, if you’re going to use a close friend, family member, or acquaintance as the initial inspiration for a character in your work, you should consider thinking through the consequences of this, especially if you plan on making the character the antagonist or in any way derogatory.
If possible and it’s healthy, inform those you plan to model. Be careful to mask their identity from the general public. Let them know what you’re considering, so they have an opportunity to voice any concerns, objections, or ask questions. Then be open to what they have to say. If they have concerns, this is not necessarily the death knell to your story being published if that’s your goal. However, it might force you into being a little more creative in changing a certain character’s physical characteristics or circumstances.
All the same, protect yourself! Some people should no longer be allowed in your life, so you may have to forgo informing them of your intention. But even if you feel they don’t deserve it, you should protect them as well by not allowing the character they’ve inspired a close representation to the original.
And readers who are friends of writers, if the shoe fits…no, I’m joking. Yeah, as an aside, my coworkers tease me that they’ll be in the next book. Well, that’s not in the plan. So, readers, please don’t assume you’ve inspired a character unless a writer informs you of such. Instead, read, relax, and enter into a fantastic story.
In summary, authors don’t write in a vacuum if our work is public. In the age of the Internet, this is especially true. The things that we write can affect others. Have I executed my advice perfectly in the past? Will you? That’s not possible, but I firmly believe that my suggestions should be a key consideration when seeking to publish. In the meantime, brainstorm, write, and work on improving your grammar and punctuation.
Above all else, examine your heart then put a piece of it on the page. If it’s in the right place, it can’t help but help others. And, no, my Baby Groot isn’t truly up for grabs. My daughter gave him to me after all.
Laura, thank you for sharing from your heart and encouraging us to write what we know.
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