Thursday, September 11, 2014

Write What You Know

Ever heard someone say, Write what you know? It sounds logical, but what does it really mean? To me, it means write what you are familiar with or what you can research. Even if you really know something, you want to weave your knowledge into the characters without the reader feeling like the author is doing the talking or spending too much time presenting minutiae. In my first fiction book, Angel Sometimes, I gave Angel the job of swimming as a mermaid. That was easy since I'd swam as a mermaid for four years.


My second fiction book, Dismembering the Past is different. Matti McAllister, a Private Investigator, is the protagonist. But I've never been a PI, so I had to do a lot of research and, as I wrote, I found myself getting inside her head. You may base characters on people you know or people you've seen around town or people you've met online. The trick is to choose something from that person and give that fear or favorite song or way of talking, or whatever you feel sets them apart from others, to a particular character. You can use little quirks or mannerism, but twist them or change them in a way that defines your character's character so that the person you base the character on doesn't see himself or herself and feel used.


What if you don't know something? For example, you have a character who's a coal miner and you know nothing about such a job. In that case, you're going to have to do a lot of researching, perhaps even some interviewing. You need to know that character inside and out in order to bring them to life on the page. Here's an idea. Sometimes, an author will have a drawing. The winner of the drawing becomes a character in the book. That's okay since the person knows she or he will be in the book. You could even do a drawing and the winner chooses whether they'd like to be a friend of the protagonist, a sidekick, or perhaps the antagonist. If you do this, you can post it on your Facebook page and announce it as a contest to see which follower gets to have input into your book or becomes a character in the book. In this way, you're pre-marketing the book and building interest in it. As the debut date for the book comes closer, you can amp up the expectation by doing a giveaway of a copy of the book when it comes out. Be sure to include a link to where followers can go to purchase your book and/or read about the book if they're not the winner. If you write what you know or what you learn, your characters are more likely to come to life on the page.

Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of 3 books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, Angel SometimesDismembering the Past and two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe. Her next book, Deadpoint, is due out in 2015.

10 comments :

  1. Thanks for the tips about characterization, Helen. I like to do interviews for research and sometimes the person I interview does become one of the bit players in the story. For instance,I interviewed a piano tuner for information I needed for Open Season, and his manner of speaking was so unique, I patterned the man the detective talks to after him. I love when that kind of unique characterization can come from a real experience.

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  2. All I can say, Helen, is thank goodness for Wikipedia!

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    1. I agree, Christopher. I don't go to Wiki often, but when I do I can usually find things that I can use.

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  3. JK Rowling never attended Hogwarts. Her book series, however, does have a lot of realistic touches such as the dining hall and common rooms at boarding schools, traveling by train, and a magical form of soccer. Although much is fantasy, she grounded it in reality. Do that.

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  4. I interviewed attorneys to create my three protagonists in the first of my trilogies, one of them a number of times.

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    1. How interesting Linda. Were the interviews difficult to set up?

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  5. I've spent a lot of money on beer when I interview cops for my police stories. They love to talk about their work.

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    1. Now, I would never have thought of buying beer while interviewing police!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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