On Writing What You Know

I had an unusual experience for a Southern Californian over the weekend.  Like thousands of other sun-entitled San Diegans, I made a cursory search for that ordinarily useless umbrella, couldn’t find it, and left to go to the Pride Parade without it.  And then I got drenched by the aftermath of Hurricane Dolores.

Rainwater stung my eyes.  My body chilled to the point of shivering.  I got blisters from walking in wet shoes.  I ended up trespassing on private property with my husband, two good friends, and a dog so we could shelter under someone’s eaves while we waited for my brother-in-law and his car to rescue us from our own stupidity.

I have no regrets though, because now I have a whole new set of sensory experiences I can bring to my writing!

If you want to be a writer, this is how you have to see the world.  Any new experience is writing fuel, be it pleasant, awkward, uncomfortable, or even painful.  Remember the details — what it felt like, looked like, smelled like.  Journal about it if you like, or just let it sit in that big stewpot on the back burner in your head.

When you sit down to write, put your characters through your own experiences.  And when you have the time, make some experiences for yourself.

Are your characters in a lot of fights?  Consider some martial arts classes.  You don’t need to be a kung fu master or skilled swordsperson.  A few classes in martial arts — or any discipline, from painting to piano to plumbing — will give you some idea about what the skilled practitioners are doing.

Are your characters on a long trek across your fantasy world?  Go for a hike!  You don’t have to stay out for months and months — a few nights camping without a toilet or a shower will give you ideas about how glorious, yet uncomfortable and exhausting, living on the road and sleeping in the open can be.

Straining to create a new character?  Take traits from people you know.  Are your characters in love?  Draw from your own loves, and crushes, and one-night-stands, and that short, awkward relationship with that guy who was into you, but you weren’t into him.

Do your characters intoxicate themselves?  If you aren’t going to intoxicate yourself — or even if you are — spend some time watching other people intoxicate themselves while sober, and talk to them about the experience.  The last thing the world needs is one more stereotyped, inaccurate ‘drug scene.’

You often hear the writerly advice, “Read, read, read!”  Do that, read everything, but get out and live too.


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