Thursday, May 31, 2012

Writing What You Know...When You Don't Know Much

So we chatted Tuesday on writing what you know...but how do you write what you know when what you want to write is pretty far from your personal experience?  Research gets you halfway there, but often the tactile and emotional experience can't be found in books or articles.

It can, however, usually be found in your experience.

You might not have the same experiences as your protagonists, but it's pretty likely that you do have transferable knowledge.  J.K. Rowling had (probably...) never played quidditch--but I bet she knew what it felt like to play on a team, have others relying on her to play hard, to play hard and win, and to play hard and lose.  Anyone who's survived P.E. class has that, right?  It's just transferring what you already know into understanding what you haven't experiences.

Everyone has unique experiences that lend all kinds of insider's knowledge that can come to play in writing.  One of my most common sources of inspiration and intuition is my weird hobby.  I do living history events--Revolutionary War reenactment.  (Pause for getting over extreme geekiness of previous statement.)  Obviously if I wanted to write about the American Revolution or the 18th Century in general it provides tons of great info. But if you dig deeper, it provides a lot more.

So, four ways in which my weird hobby gives me ways to write what I know, even when I don't know much:

Five mile march...in February.  At least it didn't rain too much.
1) Pushing to the Limits.  Physically, reenacting can be an exhausting hobby.  Seriously.  We live outside for days on end in all kinds of weather--it can be hovering above freezing with an icy rain and a driving wind, or it can be 100 degrees under a blanket of sweltering humidity.  Then we have to actually do stuff--haul cannons across battlefields or haul buckets of washwater back to camp.  The work literally never ends.  Add to this wearing heavy clothing and accouterments.  It ain't easy.  But it shows you what it feels like to face these kinds of elements--elements that you usually don't encounter in our cushy 21st century lives, and elements our characters often have to face because they don't live cushy 21st century lives.

Odd clothes
2) Real Camaraderie.  Think on some of your favorite books or stories--especially ones that involve action or quests or adventure.  Often the responsibility is shared by a group of people who grow to be a tight-knit company.  (Think the Fellowship of the Ring or the resistance fighters in the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay.)  I've never been in the military, or in a resistance group, or on a quest to Mount Doom.  But I bet that the relationships I've forged come close--mostly because we've survived the physical challenges associated with Point the First (above) together and have to keep working together to get a job done.  Plus we're all equally geeky, but that's another point entirely...

3) Wearing Weird Clothes.  This might seem minor.  But every time I read a historical or a fantasy that incorporates corsetry and they get it so, so wrong...I cringe.  I know what wearing a corset feels like (it's not bad) and what a few petticoats feel like, too--which makes approaching historicals a little easier.  But more than that, I know what wearing different clothes mean--it means moving differently, taking a different approach to getting dressed, and thinking about clothing differently.  All this means that no matter what my characters are wearing, whether it's 1800 or some imagined future, I know to think about it, and to think about how it affects them.

 4) Something Akin to Combat Situations.  It's not the real thing.  It's nowhere close to the real thing.  I want to be super-clear about that mostly because of the extreme respect I have for anyone who has experienced the real thing.  But seeing a facsimile often enough makes you appreciate the realities of the real thing much more.  There's the tactile experience--the sounds of orders being shouted and weapons discharging, being uncomfortably hot or cold or tired but having to stand stock still.  There's the emotional experience--there are stakes, and you have a job to do.  Sure, the stakes are low ones in this situation--but there's still a cranky commander yelling at you if you don't move the cannon fast enough.  And then there's the cognitive experience--the way troops move, the balance between order and confusion, seeing tactics in play.  You see choices play out and gain such an understanding for how maneuvers actually work and the factors that go into deciding what to do next.  Like chess.  But with people.

So, one weekend's worth of experience, used four ways.  And I might have a somewhat extreme example of a time-engrossing geeky hobby, but I'd wager everyone has something or several somethings like it that they can use to great effect in their writing.  What's yours?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Write What You Know...?

It's a pretty old adage...but what does it mean?

The quote is attributed to Mark Twain, and if we take him at his word, he did, essentially, write what he knew firsthand. Twain is famous for writing about a world he was familiar with, generally times and places he'd experienced (though not always--I doubt he'd been to King Arthur's Court any more often than the Connecticut Yankee had, but you never know).  Still, we as writers clearly branch out and write what we don't know pretty often, too--for every writer inspired by his or her hometown, there's another writing about space colonies on asteroids or court intrigue in 16th century France.

So, can you effectively write what you don't know?

I'm going to say no and ask that you hold your horses to let me explain.  A writer can't write what he or she has no grasp on--but there are more ways that living through it to get a handle on a subject.  After all, writers write dozens of lives but only live one.  And fiction isn't memoir.

I think there are two ways to get at what you need to know to write what you haven't experienced.

Secondhand and Transferable Knowledge Also called "research."  You don't need to live through the Black Death to know what the symptoms are, or work for NASA to get a working knowledge of a shuttle launch.  This is what libraries, the internet, and experts are for.

There's also the stuff you already know--or the stuff you didn't know you knew.   No, you've never crawled across a desert nearly dying of thirst.  But you've been hot and exhausted and desperate for a Gatorade, right?  (If not, see the next section.)  Take the tactile and emotional elements of what you remember from that experience--the sweat tickling your back, the sun feeling like a blanket smothering you, the anxiety rising in your chest as you started to question--really question--if you were going to be ok.

Putting on Their Shoes In the movie Tropic Thunder, the catalyst for the film's action is that a director decides that his namby-pamby actors can't capture the fear, courage, and grit that was the Vietnam War unless they're put "in the sh!t" and forced to survive in the jungle for a while.  Sometimes namby-pamby writers can't capture the physical reality or emotional depth that accompanies what they want to write about unless they get closer to it.  I don't suggest getting dropped in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but you do have some options.

You might have an experience that can transfer--you've put on similar shoes and know how to walk in them.  Other times, you might need to find a way to put on those shoes to get yourself to a place where you can write what you know.

If you just have no clue about the tangibles--what does riding a horse actually feel like?  How loud is a gun when it's fired?--you can find out.  Do some firsthand research--find a situation as close to the one you want to write about and see if you can experience it (safely).  If you're trying to write a story about a military campaign and have never even camped, this might be a good time to see what it feels like to sleep outside.  If you're writing a historical ball scene but have never danced, you might want to seek out a way to experience that.

If you're at a loss about an emotional experience, you have two choices.  Go back and ask yourself if you do have any transferable knowledge--perhaps you haven't lost a spouse, but you can channel what grieving feels like from others losses.  But if you really have nothing to pull from, I'm going to suggest something radical--maybe you aren't ready to write that particular story yet.  There's a reason that writers can have lifelong careers and often get better as they get older--when you experience more, you have more to write from.  We've all read attempts at capturing an emotional moment that fall flat--it's probably because the writer wasn't ready to tackle that subject yet.

What do you think?  Do you need to write what you know--or know what you write?  Or can a good writer create a fictional experience without personal experience to pull from?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Accountable to the Page: Writing and Schedules

Tuesday I shared what gets me motivated to write--today I'm thinking about what I can do to hold myself to write.  Having a schedule or goal or other expectation keeps you accountable to your work--and the best partner, I think, to creativity is accountability.  We writers have a little problem most of the time during our writing careers: We aren't accountable to anyone but ourselves and the page--no boss, no time card, no nosy coworkers--so we have to create that accountability for ourselves.  I want more of a schedule-based writing life, and a few ways of doing so have emerged for me:

1) The Clock Method.  This one is basic--you clock in, you clock out.  Your butt is in your chair for a set number of hours each day, hands on keyboard, writing.

2) The Goal Method.  A little more flexible, but also, in my opinion, harder to hold yourself to.  You have a daily (or, depending on your schedule and lifestyle, weekly) writing goal, and you meet it by scheduling yourself to complete it when you have time.  One day it might be first thing in the morning, another it's staying up late to finish.  Regardless--your goal is your taskmaster, not the clock.

3) The Task Method.  Like the goal method, but instead of a specific word count, you have a task that needs to be completed, and you set yourself to doing it until it is done.  Maybe you use this when you have a scene that's giving you problems--you set aside time to get it done, and you're not budging until it's finished.  Or maybe you've set aside a weekend to barrel through some editing.  It wasn't about a word count or the amount of time you spent butt-in-chair, but about getting a specific job done.

So which method works the best?  It probably depends quite a bit on your lifestyle and your work style.  Some people work best with a regimented schedule; for others, it's not going to happen with a hectic work and family life, or they feel tied down by a time card, even if it's an imaginary one.

Often the Clock Method is advocated for those who want to "take themselves seriously" as writers, and I can see the wisdom here.  Your WIP is your boss, and you're showing it respect by getting to work on time.
I've never had the schedule ability to try to use the Clock Method.  Until recently, I was working full time and had about a bazillion other things I was responsible for, too--that happened at all different times of day, so a set schedule was never possible.  I'm still responsible for a lot of stuff, but I'm no longer working full time (this is a "yay" thing, by the way, not an "oh crap" thing), so I want to try to hold myself to more of a schedule.

So!  Starting next week, I'm going to be a Clock-er.  We'll see how it goes.  I'll keep you posted--I have a feeling I'll either love it or beg you all to let me off the hook.

And speaking of schedules--having a schedule for social media is a good idea, too.  For one, it keeps you responsible for the things you want to be doing on blogs and Twitter...and for another, it keeps you responsible for avoiding those time-wasters that you don't want to get sucked into.  Here on the blog, I'll be posting Tuesdays and Thursdays, and, when the time permits or the fancy strikes, over the weekend.

Do you have an accountability method for your writing?  Have you ever tried one that didn't work?




Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Going to Your Happy (Writing) Place

Slumps happen.  Sometimes they're life-induced--no matter how much of  a superwriter you are, it's not easy to balance giant life changes and normal writing habits.  Sometimes they're creativity-zappage-induced--everyone hits a point where you just don't feel like writing.  Or thinking.  Or being creative or imaginative at all.

Either way, when you decide to get back in the swing of things, I find two things help.

One is a schedule--more on that on Thursday.

The other is finding your happy place.

No, seriously.  I don't do the tortured artist thing.  Even if I'm writing something deep or introspective or dark (umm, as deep or dark as I can get, anyway...), I find I do much better if I start with a smile.  Or at least not a scowl.

So I've identified a few things that never fail to put me in a better mood--and a more optimistic mood is a better writing mood, at least for me.  Because if you're feeling like a giant pessimist, you start to ask those awful questions like "why am I doing this anyway?" and "I'll never pull this off."  Not good.  Smile instead.

1) This song.  Old Crow Medicine Show, "Wagon Wheel."  It's playing now.  I am smiling like an idiot.


2) Taking a walk.  Unless it's disgusting outside.  But as long as it's over 40 and not pouring, fresh air and a little sunshine gives me energy.

3) Change of scenery and someone who makes better coffee than I do.  Occasionally decamping to a coffee shop or bookstore shakes things up enough that I fall out of any slump I might have tripped into by accident.

4) Doing something else creative.  For me, it's often sewing. Even just thinking out a new project wakes up the sleeping creative areas of my brain and gets them excited to be working again.

All these things are pretty important to me right now--the past couple weeks I've been moving, and nothing steals all your time or energy like an inter-state move (who knew that starting electric service could be such a time-consuming pain in the rump?).  Now it's time to dust off and get back in the action--happy place, here I come!

What's your creative happy place?  Is there a song, a place, an inspirational quote or picture that gets you ready to write?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Why I'm Here...Blogging, That Is

Why have a writing blog, anyway?

Good question.  I keep hearing it repeated--blogging doesn't have the same chutzpah it used to in terms of creating platform and garnering readership.  Not with Twitter, Facebook, and other quick-connect methods for creating a network.  Fewer people are blogging.  Fewer people are paying attention to blogs.

So why have a blog?

I confess--I don't have a blog to ratchet up a readership.  I agree--excepting a few choice cases, those days are done.  Perhaps fewer people are blogging--but fewer people doesn't mean that the value is gone.  As a writer, I think there are more important reasons than platform to have a blog:

1) I like keeping in touch with other writers.  Sure, Twitter and other sites allow this too--but not on the same level, in my opinion, as blogging.  I get to see what my writer-friends are struggling with, triumphing over, and just thinking about--in more than 140 characters.  Twitter may foster conversation and sharing, but blogging fosters a community.

2) Sometimes thinking out loud helps--and sometimes writing things down makes you accountable to them.  I want to make writing a priority.  See? I wrote that down.  And I'm sharing it with you.  And now I'm responsible for it.  Plus, the process of writing out our struggles and thoughts, and seeing how others respond, is a great way to tease out our thoughts and plans--at least if you're kind of a verbal processor, like I am.

3) It's a way to document the journey.  There's no denying how far you've come when you wrote down where you were this time last month...last year...five years ago.  And going down the road with companions--that community I mentioned in #1--is far preferable to going it alone.  Even for introvert-y types like me.

That's why I'm here--and why I've branched my writing blog and sewing/living history blog away from one another.  If I'm a writer, it deserves its own space.  


So here's my only other question--why do you blog?