Write What You Know?

Wattpad is a place where anything is possible, a place where the best writers in the world can share their craft. And then there’s me. I’m a twenty-one time loser in the author game, having written several basketball teams’ worth of garbage under various assumed names. Fans of irony will appreciate that this makes me the ideal teacher: I know exactly what doesn’t work! If “those who can’t do, teach” is true at all, then reading this book is a sure path to your first bestseller.

A couple of years ago, now, my husband and I sold our place in the city and moved up here to the woods. I’ve never made more than 5,000 a month, writing; most months I’m lucky to break 500. Fortunately, though, my husband has a “real” job with things like benefits. Being a country girl, I was ecstatic. My husband, the city boy, was scared. Enthusiastic, sure! But for someone who’d never seen a bear up close, waking up to one molesting his dumpster was a surprise.

Cities have amenities like trash collection. We’re far enough out that we’re essentially off the grid. So, while I regaled him with stories about turtle racing, my husband—we’ll call him Mr. Business—learned that roosters are rapists. I finally understood how different our upbringings had been when his favorite hen died and I offered to serve her for dinner. Long before that upsetting evening, though, Mr. Business became convinced that our township’s farmers were all in hibernation.

He’d expected to see them: farmers, resting on their hoes, admiring neatly formed rows of cabbages. Instead, he had the road to himself. Which, in turn, led to his conclusion no one within a thousand square miles got out of bed before he did. This from the man who was still working out the mysteries of Cadbury’s bunnies. I explained that no, he didn’t have the greatest work ethic in the world; his neighbors, by the time he hoisted himself out of bed, had long ago finished their morning chores and washed up for breakfast. I mean, really. Have you ever milked a cow?

My husband is, without a doubt, the best man in the world but he’s also useful in illustrating a point: a little knowledge might or might not be dangerous, but it sure is confusing. When your only exposure to farm life is Old McDonald, you have no reason to imagine that you’re ignorant! Mr. Business has earned multiple degrees, on multiple continents. He’s intelligent, and well-read. He’s everything—except a hillbilly.

And that’s where I come in.

We live in a competitive world, which can make a person devalue their own experience. If I’m not Kim Kardashian, you might ask, what am I? Just about everyone these days is writing about billionaires, from the vampire kind to the “if he worked construction, then this would be an episode of Criminal Minds” kind. Which, if that’s what gets you going, great. Just don’t undervalue the stories—and there are dozens, at least—that can only be told by you.

Mr. Business wasn’t trying to insult anyone; the fact that most of America’s farmers had switched from dinner bells to cell phones had honestly never occurred to him. My experience, the things I took for granted, were as foreign to him as bespoke clothing was to me.

All writing is, to some extent, biographical.

We each write through the lens of our own experiences and there, the good news and the bad news area the same news. We’re all unique! But, at the same time, we’re none of us objective. I see the world from my point of view; you see the world through yours. Which sounds obvious, but really isn’t. Even when we, as authors, do our best to remove ourselves from our biases, we can’t. All we can do is become aware of them and, in so doing, hopefully glean from them some kind of inspiration.

Writing isn’t peer reviewed! If I decided to write a book about how awesome it is to be, I don’t know, a supermodel no one would stop me. No one would read it, either, of course. There’d be no passion, no heart. How could there be, when I don’t know the first thing about what that life might be like?

Whatever you write is going to be, inherently, a reflection of who you are. You—literally—can’t write what you don’t know. Yes, you can guess, but drama lies in conflict and no amount of daydreaming can create insight. Personal experience, however, brings a depth of understanding that nothing else can. Think of it this way: research, and everything else that goes into a story, are Frankenstein’s monster. They’re absolutely necessary but, by themselves, they’re nothing more than a collection of parts. That bolt from the blue, that you element is what gives your creation life.

I’m currently writing a novel about a forbidden romance. That, yes, is set in another universe. Which might lead you to ask: am I breaking my own rule? I, after all, have never been in space. Well, first, a world like the one I’m envisioning doesn’t exist anywhere but second, and more importantly, no one’s arguing that you can’t have an imagination. The heart, no pun intended, of Write in Water is love—and its consequences. Love, at least, is something I know something about.

Good writing, of all kinds, comes down to good characters. Good characters, in turn, are relatable. Ask yourself, when writing, how much do I personally connect to these characters? The closer you feel to them, the closer everyone else is going to feel to them. This is true whether your story is set on Mars or one street over. Your own personal insight, in every setting, is going to be transcendent. Your story, to put things slightly differently, is going to feel real.

Location, in my opinion, should never be a plot device. Still, you have to have one and this is where research comes in. Obviously, though, some locations require more research than others! I’m enough of a dork that I actually have a degree in medieval history and even so writing about kings and queens would be a stretch. I could write, and have written, a lot more convincingly about being a serf. I’m not arguing that aristocrats don’t have problems, only that I have no innate sense of what they might be. Going to bed at night hungry, though, that was my entire childhood.

The good news, here, is that we live in a world where literally all of human knowledge is at our fingertips. Research is easier than ever. We can read books and, possibly even better, we can seek out people who are literally our polar opposites and ask them as many questions as we want. Going back to Write in Water, one of the characters might or might not be based on my husband.

What do you think?

What inspires your writing?