Step into my ‘Way Back Machine’ and I’ll take you to the 1970s. That was when I wrote the first book in the Quirni novels. It was badly written. The original Quirni novel wasn’t about Erica, but Matilda. She worked through obstacles without much internal reflection.
It was a book of doing. Matilda did things. She didn’t care about things other than getting her way and achieving her goals. She was an un-nuanced, shallow teenager with big problems. She was like me at the time.
Matilda rode horses and shot guns. She camped and fought and even fell in love with Roger, although he fell for her so fast that took all of one page. In order to write about these things I believed I needed to know what it was like to ride and shoot and camp in but there was no internet to search. It was the 1970s and I lived in a small town without horses or guns and I didn’t camp so anything I included about those activities I had to make up, just wing it.
When I fleshed out Matilda’s character in the 1980s, I was still thinking I had to do things to write about them so I learned to ride. I learned to shoot. I camped and, eventually, I learned –doing things has nothing to do with writing what I know. Writing isn’t about doing things. A writer does not need to know how to shoot a gun for a character to shoot a gun. The story can progress without the tiny details which let the reader know the writer understands the gun.
Granted, if you ‘wing it’ and write about subjects you don’t personally understand, you will make mistakes. There will be readers who roll their eyes at the idiocy. It would be like me watching medical dramas on TV. Every time a lab test comes back in minutes or a biopsy is tossed under a microscope and looked at without any prep, I scoff and have to point out the stupidity because I am a laboratory technologist. Still I watch because how the characters did those things doesn’t matter.
When we follow the age old advice ‘Write What You Know’ we should not expect to do everything our character does. Instead, we should write characters that experience the emotional depth of ourselves.
It’s the inner self, the emotional state, that makes a good story. A person might not move an inch in a scene but have revelations about their position in life. It is the turmoil inside, whether it relates to an inner challenge, an outer challenge, or a physical challenge, that makes a story.
I can write about family turmoil and finding a family to love me. Most of us probably can. I know about the pain of loss and the fight to overcome it. I know how sickness changes more than the well being of body. Family, learning to love, and being ill are worth a year of stories if I can suss out the deepest, clearest truth of them.
But sussing out that truth, the one that goes deep, is hard to do. Too often attempts to do it fall short. Stories that deal with tragedy commonly felt by people risk being boring. That is because the events of those stories are boring regardless of how tragic they are.
Readers like me don’t care about the results of mishaps or the happily ever after once the romance is over, unless those telling the story are dear friends. Readers don’t want to hear about events in an author’s life unless it is a biography they are reading. Any discussion about personal illness quickly puts listeners to sleep if it simply describes the common feelings and experiences.
But if the writer can describe the inner side, the feelings, the dread, the hope, the fears, those things we could not or would not say, the story comes alive. It’s a hard task and that is why writing can be such a bitch.
Hemingway said “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” And so it is. And the ‘vein‘ is the key. No one wants to read the arterial blast of trauma. Readers want the slow bleed, the tension, the nuance of a writer who will bleed for them slowly and give them time to savor the taste of their life.
If you opened a vein to write, what would your story be about?
Please let us know in the comments or write a short story and tag back to our post.