Life, Death, Dragons and St Patrick’s Day… or Writing About What You Know
I grew up believing in leprechauns. They scampered through the house on St Patrick’s Day turning the milk, the orange juice and even the butter green – much to my mother’s annoyance (which confirmed the existence of leprechauns since we knew she didn’t do it). But we loved it, and my brothers and I would rush downstairs in the morning, throw open the door to the fridge, and squeal in delight at the ‘green’ juice that awaited us. It was magic! It was wonderful!
And it was my father’s birthday.
To this day, St Patrick’s Day is special to me. But now, it is no longer magical. Now, it reminds me of a man I can no longer speak with, a man who never knew his grandkids, a man who would have loved to create the same magic for them as he did for us.
So how does this fit with ‘Write What You Know’?
First of all, what does that even mean? Does it mean you can only write about your town, your job, the sports you’ve played, or the major you studied in college? It sounds like it, doesn’t it? Especially when ‘Your Voice Needs to be Authentic’ is added to it. Which is maybe why I have seen so many manuscripts set in the 70’s or 80’s or 90’s… but does setting it in your own teen years make a story authentic? It might, or it might not. But what happens if you want to write about a school for magicians?
If you’ve never played handball, or shot a gun, or lived in the 18th century, it doesn’t mean you can’t write about it. You can research all of those things. You can interview people who have the expertise you lack, you can read about it, you can even take a class or acquire a new skill. You can learn about a myriad of things that will make your setting, or character background, realistic.
But if you’ve never been in love, or felt the pain of loss or wanted something you couldn’t have, how can you write about a handball tournament and make it not just realistic, but compelling?
Because ultimately, when a story or character is compelling it hooks the reader. It’s what allows the reader to suspend disbelief and be drawn into the world you have created. Don’t get me wrong – a story still needs to be realistic. If the details are off, a reader will be pushed out of the story world and put the book down. But being ‘realistic’ doesn’t make a story ‘real’. And having a reader feel your characters, and your story, are real is the highest compliment a writer can receive.
So how do we create a story that is real?
Characters become real when the reader can connect emotionally to them. And luckily for us, by the time we decide to become writers, we have all experienced a wide range of emotions.
Take, for example, my memory of St Patrick’s Day. The feeling of wonder, of delight, that I had in the morning as we ran to see if the leprechauns had been to our house can fit any story about a character discovering magic or entering a new world.
Or you can take that memory of knowing something else existed, something that was beyond the boundaries of what we could see and explain, and use that feeling to create a new world, or new creatures, or even your own version of leprechauns or dragons or witches. You can let yourself go back to an age when we all believed – that time when we believed in lions before we’d seen one, in leprechauns before we discovered the green food dye. That time when magic was real, and our world wasn’t the only one.
On the other hand, my memory of the same event, recalled as an adult who has lost her father, can fuel any story about loss, or death, or the desire to re-create something that is now gone. All of these emotions are as authentic as they are different. Each memory, each experience, has a wealth of emotions we can dig into as writers – whether we write about our hometown or dragons bursting into flames.
My father was an intense, passionate man, and we often argued. But he was never boring. One of the things he taught me was to go all the way. If I wanted something, I should do it.
Not half-heartedly, not cutting the corners.
All the Way.
So Happy St Patrick’s Day, Pops – this one’s for you.