June 27, 2013

Write More Better: Write What You Know

My boyfriend Garo is a slacker.

I don’t mean he’s a “slacker” slacker. What I mean is that he is not very perceptive of the world around him. He stays in his apartment, plays video games with his brother, ventures outside to work and maybe eat food, and goes home and sleeps. A fairly classic example of an American hikikomori.

The thing with shut-ins, though, is that they never know what’s going on in the world around him.
We were talking on the A train the other day when I mentioned the bike-sharing program that’s starting up in the city. There are stations now around NYC where you can pick up a bike and ride it instead of walking to your destination, and you can ride the bike to one of a HUGE number of racks below 59th in Manhattan (at least -- I’m a subway rider, so I don’t know all of the official stats). I’ve known for a while that my boyfriend has wanted to bike to work, so I mentioned the bike share program to him. Which, by the way, has been broadcasted about for at least three months in the papers, online, and on TV
He didn’t know a thing about it.

I had to DRAG him to some of the outside kiosks to show him the darn thing existed. A week later, he’s now super interested in it and has been following it on his phone. But he would have known about it had he just picked up a paper. (He says he gets all of his news by word of mouth, by the way. I love him, but he might be stuck in the 1800’s.)


As writers and authors, we have to be the exact opposite of Garo. We have to be engaged with our daily world, because it is the one we live in, and it is the one we reflect (one way or another) in our writing. Our writing must connect with readers, and our readers live in THIS world (unless a year from now we make friends with aliens, but that’s hypothetical). And what better way to reflect our world than to know as much as we can about it?

This brings me to my primary point: to write what you know. We are often inspired by the foreign and exotic, and it’s what we want to write about. That’s awesome. But if you don’t know about the foreign place or person or thing you want to write about, you’ll end up getting a lot of your facts wrong and disappointing your readers in the process.

In 2008, I wrote a book that I thought was great at the time, but basically won’t show anybody now. The problem? I set the book in New York City, and back then, I had been in the city for a grand total of 48 hours on a field trip. This was YEARS before I’d even think about living here, and yet I thought I knew the city well enough to write an entire book about it. When I had my friend from Harlem read it, she said “characters were good, but the setting needs some serious work.”

The setting is the stage which the characters perform on and the plot gets played out, and so you have to make sure your setting is solid. For me, this meant that instead of writing grand stories about New York City, I had to start where I was at. Most of my characters were from the Midwest for a while. After I moved to NYC, I became more familiar with the setting and learned how to operate here. Because I’ve been in a big city for some time, I can properly capture that feel in a story. When I started writing Dvorak, I gave people only a couple of ground rules, and “make it start in New York City” was one of them. I wanted to make sure I knew my setting. It had to be solid.

But you also have to know your characters as well. This does not mean that every single character is allowed to be a Mary Sue. Putting yourself in a fanfiction where you meet your favorite pop star is practice, and a lot of fun, and frilly and fluffy and ultimately sugar. But putting yourself as the main character of a story you want published is another thing entirely. These stories are more like dinner, meals with nutrients and vitamins.

You don’t have to put yourself in the story to have elements of you show up, though. My love for Dance Dance Revolution back in high school translated into RB200X; Jane from The Tiger and the Lighthouse can see letters in color, but not music; Shawna from Paper Doll has my innocence (and the ability to fold paper cranes).

Some of your characters can be images of who you want to be: I was still in high school when I started writing Karen Russell’s character from The Mystery of Taconum Carnival. While I wasn’t a full-fledged college student, I had been taking some classes at the local college, and interacting with other college students gave me insight on life in college. This is the other way you write what you know: if you don’t know it, figure it out. Immerse yourself in it. It will take time, even if you don’t know the culture, especially if the story takes place in a world that isn’t the one we know -- like on a different planet, or in historical times, or in several different dimensions like Dvorak.

I stick by what I say: know what you’re writing, and it will make the process even easier. I encourage you to fall in love with your characters, with your setting. Make it blossom. Make it shine.

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