I have read lots of interviews with famous writers where they are asked to give advice to those people who are interested in writing their own stories.
One of the most common pieces of advice you hear them give is: ‘Write about what you know.’
In the past I have been really frustrated by this piece of advice.
What does it really mean?
It has puzzled me for years, more particularly when I was a child, and I would think about what I knew, and realise that I did not know very much at all, and what I did know seemed quite boring.
Who would want to read a story about the things that go on in my daily life? ‘YAWN’.
I have been thinking about this again recently, after helping run some workshops for children who are interested in writing stories.
Now that I am grown up I realise that it is a good piece of advice, but that maybe it could be explained differently so that what it means becomes clearer.
Here is what I think, ‘Write about what you know’ really means:
It means that your story has to be believable. Even if you are writing about giant flying elephants who live on Mars and only eat Cornflakes, you have to make your writing so ‘real’ that the person reading it really believes that these giant flying elephants could exist. You have to write with enough conviction and detail that your reader can see them and hear them and smell them in their imagination. It means that you have to make those images in your head first, and believe that they could exist too, so that they become real for you. When this happens you can write about them with belief, and you are sharing that belief with your readers. If it is real for you, it will be real for them. This is writing about what you know.
It means that your story has to be three dimensional. Narratives, as we have talked about before, have a structure. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. Quite often events happen in this structure in a linear fashion, i.e. in a straight line. An example of this would be: ‘Here are some flying elephants. They are my pets. My flying elephants are hungry, they make themselves some Cornflakes, they eat the Cornflakes, they are full, they leave the table’. This is a story, and all the things in it happen in a logical, linear order which make sense, but it is not very interesting to read. It’s a bit like going to an art gallery expecting to see the Mona Lisa, and instead seeing a picture of a stick lady. The story needs detail to make it interesting.
Three dimensional story writing involves bringing your story to life by adding flesh to the bones of the narrative. What do your elephants look like, for example? Even if they look like regular elephants you need to give details to make them real.
‘Here are some flying elephants.’
‘My elephants are beautiful creatures. As they fly through the air on gossamer wings that shimmer in the shafts of sunlight that break through the clouds, I marvel that such fragile looking things could hold up such massive creatures. The elephants’ bodies are as grey and solid as old churches, and about as graceful on the ground, but in the air they soar balletically. Their gnarled trunks loop and trumpet with delight as they ride the currents above me. They are just such whimsical, odd creatures, floating like giant dandelion clocks. As I watch them I wonder how anyone could fail to love them like I do.’
The more detail you add, the more three dimensional and solid your story appears. The more it becomes real. The detail is like the colour added to a photograph, the depth of perspective you put in a painting, the movement added to a film. It is what brings your story to life. Even if what you are writing about is completely alien and unknowable, by adding details that you do know; colour, sights, sounds, textures, tastes, smells, you are adding truth to fiction. You are writing about what you know.
I was always told that the best lies are the ones that contain enough truth to make them believable. If you tell an out and out lie: ‘A dinosaur ate my homework’, for example, nobody will believe you. If you tell a lie with a little truth to it: ‘I couldn’t bring my homework in today. I did it, but my dad dropped me off and it is still on the back seat of his car,’ it becomes more real and believable, even if it isn’t. Writing stories is the same. You need to add just enough truth to your stories, just enough reality to make the fantastic believable for the reader. In this way, you are writing about what you know.
If you are writing about what you know in a literal (real) sense, then you have the other problem. You are not making the fantastic real, you are making the real fantastic. You need to make what you are writing about interesting and entertaining for the reader. You can’t just write a dull ‘shopping list’ style narrative about the stuff you do every day. You have to look at what you have written and then find ways to make the same points, and tell the same story, but with extra details that make the story fun, or exciting, or sad. You need to add things that will make your reader want to read on instead of just thinking: ‘Well, yes. Everyone does that. Why should I read further.’
You can write:
‘I got up. I put my clothes on. I went downstairs for breakfast. I brushed my teeth. I got my bag from the hall. I walked to school.’
Or you can write:
‘I was dreaming that I was in the front row of a Moon Weasels’ concert. It was amazing. The lead singer had just bent down to take my hand and invite me up on stage to sing a duet with him. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was about to take his hand when I heard a bell ringing. Someone had set off a fire alarm just as I was about to realise my life long dream. I prayed it wasn’t true, but the bell kept ringing and ringing. I woke up to find it was my alarm clock reminding me that it was Monday and I had to go to school. I got dressed in a filthy mood because my dream had been completely ruined, and then, when I got down for breakfast, mum shouted at me because I’d put my tie on back to front. I chomped my Shreddies savagely, imagining that they were tiny models of mum, and that I was a giant, chomping them up one by one: ‘Mwahahahaha!’
I was getting quite carried away by this daydream until mum shouted at me again for making so much noise eating my breakfast. To cheer myself up I used extra toothpaste while I was brushing my teeth so that I made an enormous, minty foam beard. I looked like I had rabies. It was wicked. Things were looking up. Then, as I was picking up my bag to go to school I realised it was my new Moon Weasels one, and that everyone at school would be dead impressed by the coolness of my bag. By the time I set out to walk to school I was feeling brilliant. To top it off, on the way to school I decided I would try to have the same dream again when I went to bed that night, but that this time I would finish it and find out what it was like to sing with Dirk Weasel, the most amazing singer in the world.’
Make sure that when you have written your story, you read it to yourself, and if you don’t believe what you have written, nobody else will, so you will need to go back and add or take things away until you have created something that is as real as you can get it. Don’t worry if you have to do this. No real writers ever write something perfectly the first time. Usually a story has to go through several rewrites or drafts until the author is happy with it.