Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere

Write what you know, or do a good fake-out

8 Comments

Write what you know. How often have you heard that advice?

Pfft. All. The. Time.

Which is all well and good if you’re writing about making chocolate chip cookies (not cheating, mind you, actually measuring the ingredients and mixing them together) or driving in a snowstorm, or checking out of a big-box store behind the person who is cleaning the pennies out of their little coin purse.

But what if:

  • You’ve never ridden a dragon.
  • You’ve never ridden a horse.
  • You’ve never fired a gun.
  • You’ve never seen the Grand Canyon.
  • You’ve never cast a spell of invisibility.
  • You’ve never changed into a wolf/tiger/bear/bird of prey/swan/vampire/gargoyle/(I could go on).
  • You’ve never lost a brother.
  • You’ve never been stalked.
  • Someone has never tried to kill you.

Granted, some things you can realistically do. Never fired a gun? Go to your local gun shop, gun range, or contact a sportsman’s club and ask for the experience. Never ridden a horse? I’m sure most horse owners wouldn’t mind helping you out, especially if you offer to muck out the stable or pay them in return.

Some of those experiences can be translated into others. Never ridden a dragon? How different do you suppose that is from riding a horse? Never seen the Grand Canyon? Um, okay, pictures or Google Earth don’t do it justice compared to seeing it in person, but you could probably give it a good go.

Sometimes you can find other people who have had an experience you want to write about. Talk to that person, get them to describe everything from physical sensations (including any tastes or smells) to emotional sensations.

Psst, it’s called research.

But what if you haven’t experienced something, and you don’t know anyone who has? What if it’s something you cannot experience, like, ever? Time-travel. Casting spells. Shape-shifting. Or maybe something you could experience but probably shouldn’t, like falling five stories from a building or driving a car off a cliff.

Remember all those hours of make-believe when you were a kid? You didn’t know it then, but you were practicing for the times when you need to pretend. Not just in real life, because face it, we’ve all been there with the fake genuine smile and feigned interest when your relative starts telling that story yet again.

We go into that pretend state when we write things that we really don’t know. The deeper we can imagine the experience, and the more we can extrapolate from what we have experienced first-hand, the more realistic our writing will be.

The character in my latest WIP lost her big brother. I’m the oldest in my family, so I never had a big brother, nor have I lost a sibling. How could I write about her grief and guilt?

I have lost a parent. I know grief. But guilt? Hmm. I’ve gone through guilt with other things, like not offering to help the young mother in church struggling to control her three kids after her husband died. I should’ve offered to hold the fussy baby so she could deal with her other two children.

Even though I’ve never experienced loss like my character, I can use what I do know. I can remember the grief and guilt and translate it into my character. Actors do the same sort of thing. Our goal as writers is to bring our readers through the same experience as our characters.

We fake it good.

It’s worth it. The better you can fake it, the deeper the reader is pulled into the character’s experience. That translates to a better reader experience, which ultimately translates to more readers, because they tell their friends how good the story is.

How do you know you’ve written a good fake-out? When a beta reader tells you you’ve nailed something the reader actually experienced. Or when you go to book clubs and the readers relay their own similar experiences (this happens a lot with Ceone Fenn and her book, To Reap the Finest Wheat).

Like actors, we need to “get into character”. Some writers actually take acting classes to help them learn to do just that. Guess what? It means more well-rounded characters and more realistic scenes.

Our goal is to suck the reader into the story so they don’t want to surface until the end. We want them to cry, gasp, laugh, and dance for joy with our characters. Use what you know to imagine what you haven’t experienced.

Make-believe. It does a writer good.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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Author: Julie Holmes, author

Pen name: J. M. Goebel A fiction writer since elementary school (many years ago), and NaNoWriMo annual participant for a decade, I've been published in small press magazines such as "Fighting Chance" and "The Galactic Citizen". Currently I have two polished novels ready for the world and a number of others waiting their turn. I write adult mystery with extrasensory elements, mystery with a touch of romance, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy. In real life, I am a technical writer with a family of two teens, a wonderful hubby, one cat (what writer doesn't have cats??), two dogs, six chicken, and more chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits than any garden should have to deal with. My garden, our "au natural" hobby farm, and Ma Nature's annual seasons are some of my muses.

8 thoughts on “Write what you know, or do a good fake-out

  1. Yeah, Julie, a wonderful post – I love this and I was enthusiastically nodding in agreement with all your points. All so true…relating to childhood play is so relevant. As young those moments are real – my son when young was totally convinced he was Spiderman…palying Cowboys I could hear the thunder of hooves…Isn’t writing the way for us to continue the joy and freedom of that fun make-believe world and share it with others??

    I love your paragraph of:

    ‘Our goal is to suck the reader into the story so they don’t want to surface until the end. We want them to cry, gasp, laugh, and dance for joy with our characters. Use what you know to imagine what you haven’t experienced.’

    Brilliantly said! That’s being added to my quote file!

    Have a great weekend, Julie! 😀❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Annika! I’m glad you liked it 😀 I admit I love that part of writing, the excuse to make-believe. It’s a tie back to the more fun parts of being a kid. There’s nothing quite like spending the afternoon in the yard pretending to be chased by dinosaurs or finding treasure.

      Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great post, Julie. You’re right about how emotional experiences are translatable. Humans are humans after all.
    As a fantasy writer, I do lots of pretend, though I’ve found that getting hands on experience, when possible, is extremely helpful with the details. And sometimes those details will bring a scene into greater reality. When that’s not possible, a little imagination on top of research can go a long long way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The nice thing about writing fantasy is you can create the experience any way you want, but you’re right, when we base those in familiar experiences, we can deepen the effect on the reader. And hey, research is fun!

      Have a great weekend, Diana!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s wonderful that writers have such vivid imaginations that we can reach out and imagine all those things we’ve never experienced. I often get nervous when writing about an actual event or place I’ve never been part of, or visited. Will I get the facts right? Will I get the feel right? I’ve seen books ripped apart for not being authentic.

    Drudging up emotions, even those I’m unfamiliar with is far easier for me. Maybe that’s a bit of acting or unleashing empathy.

    As writers we’re required to step out of our comfort zones often when we write, tapping into unknown territories. Your post is a good reminder that we needn’t be intimidated, and that there ARE methods for ensuring we succeed…mostly are own imaginations!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely, Mae! I think stepping out of our comfort zones helps us become better writers, because we need to dig deeper to get to the place we need to be to create more authentic writing. And imagination is key. The more and better we can imagine our characters, the scenes, the emotions, the deeper into our writing we can draw our readers. 😀

      Besides, pretending can be a lot of fun (especially when we imagine riding dragons!)

      Have a great week!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ll like this, despite, you know, the obvious.

    Liked by 2 people

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