Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Write What You Know

Post by Kerrie

Write what you know. This is a mantra repeated over and over again in writing circles. Taken at face value, this could sound like a limiting statement, but the truth is, it opens the world up to you.

In a recent class with narrative nonfiction author Greg Campbell, he agreed that you should write what you know. But he added, "The best ideas come from going out into the world and turning over rocks." You should be constantly expanding your experiences to add more to your what I know repertoire. By doing this, it adds depth and texture to your writing that might not have been there otherwise.

For his book Blood Diamonds, which was a prime reference for the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, he did more than just research the diamond trade in South Africa through the Internet and phone calls, he actually went there. He learned first hand about the culture, the diamond trade and even tried to buy and smuggle a diamond from the black market.

For his latest book Flawless, which is about the largest diamond heist in history, he and his co-author went to Amsterdam where the robbery took place and visited the places and talked the people who were key players in this heist. So when it came time for him to write, he could include details and elements in the story that he would not have been able to if he had not been there.

This works for fiction as well. YA author Laura Resau does this brilliantly in her recent book, The Indigo Notebook. Resau has lived and traveled extensively in Latin America and she uses these experiences in her fiction.

There is a scene in the book where she describes a marketplace in Otavalo, Ecuador.
"Soon I turn a corner, and there it is, Plaza de Ponchos, a sea of tarps and tables spread with fuzzy scarves and sweaters and bags, flower-embroidered shirts, sparkly silver jewelry, woven rugs, heaps and heaps of colors spilling out everywhere."

Resau could have gotten this info from a photo, but this next part clearly comes from her experiences and adds a texture to the writing that could not have been captured from a picture.

"I weave through the tunnels of stalls that smell of wool fresh off llamas and sheep and alpaca, an earthy animal smell mixing with the exhaust of passing cars. Tourists are chatting with vendors, reaching out to test the itchiness level of a poncho, or holding up a brown sweater beside a gray sweater to decide with color looks best. Meanwhile, the vendors are cajoling in singsong voices, a mix of Spanish and heavily accented English."

Through her detailed descriptions, Resau is able to paint a sensory picture for her readers that establishes a strong sense of place. It immerses them in the story and allows them to be more connected to the places, events and characters.

Keep in mind you don't have to travel around the world to expand what you know. Keep your eyes and ears open to what is happening around you. Don't be afraid to talk to people and learn more about them. Ask questions. Listen. Learn.

Campbell had a great story about having a couple of young LDS men show up at his door and rather than turn them away like he usually did, he invited them in to talk. He wasn't interested in becoming a Mormon, but he wanted to learn more about these two young men and why they did what they did. Now he has a new experience and new knowledge he can draw from in the future.

Do you write what you know?
What lengths have you gone to in order to experience something you wanted to write about?



Laura Resau said...

What a great post, Kerrie-- I like this perspective on "write what you know!"

Trai said...

I think all writers end up writing what they know, as it's inevitable to draw from our store of perspectives and know-how, no matter how subconsciously we do it. But I think as a writer I join Glen and Laura in seeking out the other in the world and then seeing what makes it universal and relevant to us all.

My great lengths tends to be the library and the internet -- I write scifi and fantasy, and alas, there just isn't a shuttle to Mars or Pandora yet!

Linda Osmundson said...

The articles I've sold easily have been on subjects I know. Granted, I had to sometimes find more research to back them up, but writing what you know is a lot easier. Research pains me. Yet, I've never turned down a subject because of lack of knowledge. There's always the Internet and interviews.

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