Write What You Know (Sort of…) – Part Two: The “Close To You” Story

In Part One of the Write What You Know series, I talked a little bit about how limiting it can be if we take the advice offered by many folks who think they know what we should write about: “Write what you know!”

Near the end of that post, I talked about an interesting phenomenon. Often, when workshopping a fiction piece, the sections that readers identify as “thin” or “unbelievable” or “not convincing” are those parts or pieces that are, in fact, closest to our actual experience.

Sometimes, it’s the setting. You’ve set the story somewhere you know well, and yet, the reader says, “I don’t see enough of where these characters are” or “I just don’t buy the place you describe.”

Sometimes, it’s the plot. You’ve plopped your characters in the middle of a situation that mirrors, in many ways, things that ACTUALLY HAPPENED and yet the reader returns the verdict: “I just don’t buy it!”

Sometimes, it’s the characters themselves, especially their dialogue and actions. You’ve reproduced the scene as it happened. It is like you had a court stenographer on-site to record the words you actually said, and the words that were actually spoken to you, and yet your dear reader tells you, “This dialogue is so unrealistic. No one talks that way!”

Writing the “Close to You” story is filled with pitfalls. Here are a few of them.

  1. You tend to not be as detailed with setting: When we describe a place we know well, sometimes we skip over the things that are important or would be noticed by someone new, because the surroundings are so familiar, we take them for granted. If we are describing a “made up” setting, we become more immersed in that fictional world, seeing it the way our characters or narrator would. When we describe a “real” place, we have to find ways to see it through new eyes. We have to step back and see it from a further distance.
  2. Many times, truth is stranger than fiction: In fiction writing, we spend a lot of our critique time asking if something “really would happen that way.” It isn’t uncommon for me to say (or, to hear in the critique of a classmate), “It doesn’t make sense that this character would do that thing at that time…I need more motivation…I need to understand the ‘why’…this doesn’t ring true to me, yet.” But in real life, sometimes things happen in ways that don’t make sense at the time, and maybe never do. Life isn’t as orderly as we expect fiction stories to be. Keep that in mind.
  3. In a similar way, we put restrictions and expectations on fiction dialogue that don’t exist in the real world. Writers tell each other, all the time: “Your dialogue has to do more than just reflect the words these two people are saying at each other.” We expect fiction dialogue to work on multiple levels. That’s not true of our “real life” conversations, thank God. But, because that’s not true in our “real” conversations, if we report a conversation like a court reporter, we’ll often end up with dialogue that doesn’t ring true for the sophisticated reader.

The good news? THIS IS FICTION. You can do what ever you want.

The “close to you” story is a story you can still write, you just have to keep the pitfalls in mind, and be willing – no, be vigilant – to change the details, not just to protect the innocent, but to make sure your story communicates, to the reader, on a deeper level. Good fiction can have a real event at its core, but good fiction is the result of a writer molding, shaping, and presenting that core nugget of reality in a way that reveals a larger Truth.

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2 thoughts on “Write What You Know (Sort of…) – Part Two: The “Close To You” Story

  1. Eric, I remember having this conversation with you when you shared a writing piece with me once. I didn’t quite “buy” all aspects of it and that’s when you told me it was based on a actual life event.

    I can tell you when I worked in radio/TV in the military, the boss would often give the “boy” story to me (like something about a car show) and a “girl” story to a male reporter. Why? Because when it’s new and unfamiliar to you, you work harder to get details and information that the average person – not enthusiast – won’t know and write a better story. So, write what you don’t know and research the heck out of details! ~Kim

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