We’ve all heard the age-old saying “write what you know,” at some point in our creative journeys. Most often, it’s used as a way to explain the benefits of writing something while drawing from our own experiences, surroundings, and emotions. While this is undoubtedly helpful advice, I’d like to take it a slightly different direction as a follow-up to last week’s Step Outside Your Normal, post.
As of Tuesday night, the outline for my current project is complete (for the most part). There is, of course, work that will need to be done as I write, because it’s impossible to outline everything, but the hardest part– coming up with a “rough sketch” of the story and tweaking any major plot holes or problems that arise, is behind me.
A two week turn-around is the fastest I’ve ever been able to outline any long-term project thus far, and a big part of my success is thanks to the strategy I embraced in my last post; breaking out of my usual routine. I did not, however accomplish this step by “writing what I know.”
My current work is a fantasy romance. Since I did not live in the 1920s, the era in which the project takes place, nor am I a fairy, genie, or any other magical being, (Or am I?), it was rather difficult to use this advice in the traditional sense.
Instead, I did the following:
Whenever you’re starting something new, it’s difficult to find the perfect place to begin. I mentioned before that I usually write in chronological order, but this time, my element wasn’t time, instead, it was the world. Once I figured out the basic skeleton of my society, it was so much simpler to craft a story around the functions, fears, and abilities that not only belonged to the main character, but those around her as well.
If you’re not a world builder, don’t worry, there are plenty of other jumping off points you could use. In romance stories, the major conflict is the relationship between two characters.. In adventure stories, there’s almost always some kind of quest or journey that poses challenges for the characters to face and overcome, developing their personalities in the process. Take whatever element sticks out to you and start there; gaps can always be filled in later.
After you’ve picked your focus, start typing whatever pops into your head. It can be in a bulleted list, a paragraph, random notes, even scribbles in a journal if you prefer.this is also known as an “Idea dump.” Nothing has to be realistic or make sense. Even if you write something down and immediately think its the stupidest idea you’ve ever heard, or that it’s ridiculously obvious, don’t scrap it, just keep going. Who knows; two days from now, it might sound brilliant.
To demonstrate this, I’m going to use a romance story as an example:
- They have to meet, obviously. But how?
- Maybe the girl has a secret that keeps her from wanting to get too close.
- Maybe the guy is the suspicious type, so when he sees the girl being shady, he goes around and tries to find out the secret from her family and friends.
- Do they like each other when they first meet, or not?
- Maybe she’s really rich, but her father used to be involved in criminal activity and that’s the only reason they have all this money; she’s constantly worried about him being caught.
- What happened to her mother? Is she alive? In hiding? If she’s not alive, why?
Write until the ideas stop flowing. This may not seem all that helpful at first, but I guarantee that if you write long enough, at least one line of chicken scratch is going to spark your interest, and hopefully get going a little bit on its own.
I kind if already did this in the brainstorming example, but after you’ve gone through your notes a couple times, star any ideas you like/need for the story to work, and expand that idea into a few sentences. (Or, if you’re wordy, like me, a few paragraphs). How do you do that? You question everything.
Let’s take my first bullet point: They have to meet. How do they meet? On the street? At the fair? Shopping at a market? At a meeting? What social class does the guy belong to? If It’s not the same level as the girl, what would bring them together? Is it normal for classes to mix, or is it taboo? If it’s taboo, what happened to make it that way?
By doing this, not only are you developing the details of that particular part of the story, but, hopefully, the fictional world as well. In my above demo, I raised the question about social status and its importance to society. The places I mentioned could also be important, as depending on the time period in which you are working, you need to determine what those atmospheres would be like, and how the differing environments might influence the meeting.
From here, my ideas just kept tumbling out on top of each other, and the rough outline of the story wrote itself. I hope these tips will help all you struggling writers out there get your gears turning again, and let me know if you have any other recommendations!
Challenge of the Week: What does the phrase “write what you know” mean to you?