You know that annoying and constricting piece of advice, “write what you know”? Well, if everybody did that, the world of books would be a boring place. I doubt Suzanne Collins knows firsthand what it’s like to be a teenager fighting to the death in a televised arena. I doubt George R.R. Martin has ever chopped someone’s head off with a sword. I sure hope that Gillian Flynn doesn’t have any personal experience with calculating psychopaths or Satanic cult massacres*.
I recently read the book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (see my blog post about it), and although I mostly disliked the book, she gave one important piece of advice: You don’t have to write what you know, necessarily. Instead, write what you know emotionally. Ahh. That swings the doors of creativity wide open.
Recently, while reading Tawnysha Greene’s novel A House Made of Stars (see my review here), a childhood memory came back to me. I was ten-years-old and playing at my friend Amanda’s house. Amanda’s father was dead — struck by lightning, she told me. (Only now, years later, do I realize this is the kind of story a ten-year-old invents when she doesn’t know the truth, or, perhaps, when she’s trying to hide it.)
My memory is of Amanda’s sixteen-year-old brother, acne-faced and heavy-set and scary as an ogre, chasing us while brandishing a kitchen knife in one meaty paw.
“I’m going to kill you both!” be bellowed as Amanda and I ran squealing through the house. I didn’t know her brother well enough to know — was this a game… or not?
“Quick, let’s hide up here.” Amanda grabbed my hand and pulled me into her mother’s closet. There was a string hanging from the ceiling, and she yanked on it to reveal a set of wooden steps. We scampered up them into the dark and musty attic and crouched behind a stack of boxes, waiting.
Below us, we could hear her brother’s footsteps in the hallway, and then his voice: “Where are you, little girls? Come out, come out wherever you are.”
Amanda squeezed my hand, and I felt confused, terrified, helpless.
Then we heard him open the closet door. The attic steps squeaked and groaned under his weight. Thump, thump, thump. The sound of his footsteps matched the pounding of my heart. I didn’t know what he would do when he found us, but I was preparing for the worst.
I don’t remember what happened next except I know he didn’t hurt us. In the end, it was all a game: just Amanda’s mean older brother trying to scare us. I don’t remember what we did for the rest of the afternoon, although probably her brother went outside to play basketball while Amanda and I made brownies and watched MTV. What I do remember, though, is the fear. I remember hiding in that attic, trying to make myself small and invisible. I remember feeling absolutely helpless and terrified.
And I can use experiences like that. If I’m writing a scene in which my protagonist is being chased by an ogre, or hiding from an abusive stepfather, I don’t need to have those exact experiences in my personal history. I can instead remember what it was like to hide from Amanda’s scary older brother — access those memories, those feelings. The emotion is what will make my scene feel real.
The Hunger Games is about a futuristic child death match, sure. But it’s also about Katniss’s protective love for her sister, her competitive spirit, her anger at authority, and her confusion over which boy she loves. Hmm, I bet Suzanne Collins has experienced all of those emotions at some point in her life.
So, go forth everyone, and write about haunted houses and bizarre crimes and robot aliens and all sorts of other things you’ve never known. As long as you write what you know emotionally, your story will ring true.
*Suzzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games trilogy, George R.R. Martin writes the series A Song of Ice and Fire (which became Game of Thrones) and Gillian Flynn is the author of Gone Girl and Dark Places.