Sunday, May 8, 2011

Writing What You "Know" Into What You Don't

There are moments out of the past that stick with us for a variety of reasons. Some are happy moments, some not so happy...okay...maybe a lot of them are the not so happy. It's sad that we often can reflect back on 10 unhappy memories quicker than equally happy ones. They've made the kind of mark that joyful moments just don't leave as often. One of the more memorable unhappy childhood moments in my life just spawned the beginnings of an entire book.

I've spoken before about the "write what you know" mantra. It can be a tormenting term if you don't manipulate it to your liking. I like to say, instead, "write what you understand." And, here's the difference. I'll use an example that came to me recently. I've been reading up on steampunk. What's that you say? Well, it's sort of an "advanced Victorian times" theme. Go back 100 years, but advance technology of the day in certain aspects. The TV show Wild Wild West (and the so-so Will Smith movie) were a bit of steampunk. Pullman's alternate universe where Moira lives in the His Dark Materials trilogy is a steampunk version of our world. Anyway, do a Google search to find out more. It's intriguing alternate universe kind of stuff and begs to be delved into.

So, that being said, I was venturing through the recesses of my mind and trying to set myself into a Victorian/Edwardian frame of mind. I, however, know little of those times. Scary? Yes. Should it stop me from writing a story about it? No way. It's not about what you's about what you understand. I can research anything to know about it, but what's more important is that, through that research, I am able to understand what it might have been like to live during that time period and apply what I know about my own life to it.

Out of the depths came a very vivid memory of a day when I was a child. I can’t pin it to particular year, but based on the evidence, I believe I was ~10-11. This was a difficult time in my childhood. My parents had been separated for several years before divorcing when I was 10. My older siblings (9.5 years) dealt with it in varying terms, but on a level that I wouldn’t understand until I myself became an adult. One evening, my brother came home from a party after imbibing a bit too much and, well…things got messy. The next day, I left the house and played with the kids in the neighborhood (going so far as to skip lunch) until everyone had gone in for dinner. I then sat on the curb across the street from my house for a rather long time, waiting to be called in. It was that memory of sitting on the curb, reliving the previous night, and fearing that I might somehow be affected upon my return that suddenly produced a 1000-word introductory scene that left me in tears (yeah...I'm a bit of crier). Here’s the first couple paragraphs:

Bill Clyde sat on the curb, unable to rid himself of the sounds and image of his little brother vomiting blood repeatedly throughout the previous night. It was unfathomable to him that so much could come from a boy so small. Bill had run from the house first thing that morning shortly after waking and found every excuse to not be within shouting distance all day. He didn't want to be there when whatever was eating away at Tommy finally took him. He knew it was selfish to hope, but perhaps it would all be over by the time he returned. Perhaps, someone would come and tell him.

But, as the day wore on and his stomach rolled angrily for a lack of food, he knew he would have to return on his own. Mother would let him slide by at lunch time, but supper was another story. Now, he found himself staring across the street from the house, glancing back at it to see if his mother had spotted him yet. He wiped at his nose, trying to ward off the imagined scent of bile and plasma that had hung over the house for the past week. For moment, he wondered if it had become so strong that he could actually smell his house and dying brother from a hundred feet away.

Now, this isn't to say that every deep, dark, or emotional memory you have will lead to substantial writing or plot development. But, what it does say is that sometimes "knowing" is more about understanding emotions and not necessarily about being able to recite the five standard uses of horse hair in Victorian times (research indicates fishing line, upholstery stuffing, brushes, hats, and underwear, but don't take my word for it). Sure, not knowing when it comes to details can throw off any reader...and you should never be vague when trying to be factual. But, those details, in my mind, aren't what make up the body of a good piece of writing. They're the buttons. They're shiny and useful and hold things together at times, but when it comes down to it, it's the thread of the fabric, what the author understands about the human condition, that creates the beauty and magnificence of the shirt...ummm...story.

So, don't be afraid of plunging into something you know little about. Start with what you do know and understand about your characters. The details can come later. Buttons go on last, right?

What are some ways you’ve applied what you understand to something you don’t really know?

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