I used to get really irritated whenever I read a writing book that told me to write what I know. I’m a fantasy writer, who occasionally slips into sci-fi, and I mocked it endlessly. The only people who write only what they know are memoir writers, nonfiction writers, anything but fiction writers. That’s the point of fiction, to get inside someone else’s head, to experience things you are usually incapable of experiencing.
Then, about a year ago, I read a writing book (I read ALL the writing books) and it said something about using your experiences to color a story. What does something like this feel like? How does sadness feel? How does rain? What does this look like, exactly? It’s hard to accurately describe things you haven’t experienced. I couldn’t describe a kiss or Vietnamese food, because I’ve never experienced those. I might be able to, through reading about these things and regurgitating their descriptions, but it won’t be as real as you’d think. Anyone can write “Jane ate the last of the messy, delicious ice cream.” Even someone who’s never had ice cream. Someone who’s had ice cream might write “Jane bent over her bowl to stop the ice cream from dripping on her shirt, and chased the half-melted dribbles with the edge of her spoon.”
What I mean is that almost everything I see and feel and think will eventually end up on paper. Like, today I stood in line behind a man with a text tone like a duck’s quack. He’d pull out his phone, dart off a response, barely get the phone back into his pocket before it quacked again. He cussed out the Starbucks manager because the line was too long, and he had a gross beard. That man is going in a book, probably mine.
In the TJ Maxx, I heard a woman talking about her sister’s ever-growing collection of eclectic coffee cups. Outside, I put on sunglasses to guard my eyes against the stinging rain. The grumpy duck man I mentioned earlier said that the line was moving as slowly as molasses on a cold morning. The sky was a ominous charcoal on one horizon and pale, sunny blue on the other. I went on a three-store quest for a Santa hat, and spent too much money on patterned duct tape. I dyed my hair temporary red and washed it out thirty minutes later, then sat with a towel draped over my head and tossed around my shoulders and sulked because I’d wasted my money on something that made my hair stiff and gel-y and stained everything I touched. I laughed with a friend, and sat on my sunglasses and broke them, and begged for cookies from another friend. I knotted my scarf around my shoulders like a shawl.
These are all details I can put in a book or an article, to round out a character or provide a taste of setting. The more I see and experience and the more I write down, the better I can describe something in my writing. It’s not just things that happen to me personally, either. Someone else’s description of their day can help me with my writing, too, or stories other people have written.
It’s showing, not telling, and it’s so much easier when I know for a fact what something is like.