When I was young, I was lucky enough to go to a few special classes that dealt with writing. Some advice threaded through all of them. I’m sure you’ve heard the classics: “Show, don’t tell,” and “Write what you know.”
“Show, don’t tell,” absolutely makes sense. “Write what you know”… Well, that one I take with a grain of salt.
I’m constantly using my imagination to come up with, “What if?” I write about werewolves and vampires. I write about aliens and spaceships. To my knowledge, none of my friends are werewolves or aliens or alien werewolves. No vampires, either. I did watch the first Space Shuttle launch in Florida with my own eyes, though, and now that I think of it, I absolutely must write a blog post about that experience (yay, spaceships!). I have to use my imagination to come up with people, locations, and plot twists that make my stories come to life.
That doesn’t mean I can’t draw on reality from time to time.
I was raised in part in Florida, where I set Wandering Soul and the two books that come after it. Three of my years in that interesting state were spent in a brand-new housing development that was surrounded on two sides by “countryside.” The thing about the countryside in Florida? It’s mostly a swamp.
If you hopped over the fence in our back yard (which I did on a daily basis) and turned around, you couldn’t see the fence. It was covered in sphagnum moss, thick gray tendrils curling over every inch of wood. Your feet would sink into the sand that made up the ground, and you’d find yourself surrounded by palms and cactus and spikey, fan-shaped plants whose names I don’t know.
We saw all kinds of interesting flora and fauna. Sometimes in the back yard, sometimes much, much closer. I’ve woken up to the sting of a dozen fire ants because I dared to eat a snack in my bed (to this day, I have a hard rule – NO FOOD IN THE BEDROOMS!!!). I’ve scared off an Eastern Diamondback Rattler in the yard that was about to get into it with the meanest cat you’ve ever met (she mauled me after I saved her). We found scorpions on the stoop, the patio, even in the dishwasher once.
At the time, these were adrenaline-firing, absolutely unpleasant, and downright scary incidents. Now, they’re writing fodder. I can take these events and plug in key elements to make my stories hit home. Did you know that a scorpion’s silhouette through lace can look like a beetle until it unfurls its pincers and tail? That dread in the pit of whatever poor character gets that one, that’s real. The key is to take what you know and use it to make what you imagine into something that feels real, compelling, possible. I don’t just want my readers to enjoy my works, I want them to walk away thinking, “What if?” as well.
“Write what you know” absolutely has it’s place. But it should inform our writing, not limit it.