Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Where do I get off--writing tip

Question:  People keep telling me to write stories about more interesting people. They want, spies, private detectives, cops, or lawyers?  I am not any of those things. I am a bored housewife. Last month they were all yelling , "Write What you KNOW!" Where do I get off trying to write about exciting stuff? I don't know how to do any of those things.

Answer: You are also an intelligent woman, who can find out a lot about anything if she wants to.

I'm not saying to spend years on Research. You're a writer, not a scholar. But if you want your character to be a cop, call your local cop shop and ask if they have a "public information officer?" Or if there is someone you can talk to to find out what their day is like on an average day. Take that person to lunch, record the conversation, and ask them to talk from experience. Once you know what the routine is, THEN ask yourself "What if?" and let your imagination go to work. A writer's imagination is the important part of the equation. Without that, no writer has a chance.

One of the first things I ever wrote, was a novella I called, THE DROWNED LAND. It's set in the 1890s, a time I haven't lived in, on a sailing dredger, a kind of boat I had seen on the water, but had never been aboard, and it encompassed a culture (the island, watermen's culture) of which I was somewhat familliar through being related to half this county, but had little personal day-to-day experience with.  The problem was, I could not know what it was like to live aboard a dredge boat and catch oysters for weeks and months at a time. The story was to have that setting and have a hurricane, too, and I planned to juxtapose the left-at-home women and their storm-related problems, with the men aboard ship as the storm progressed.

I realized that I had to learn what it was like to live aboard a dredger day-to-day. I had a husband, a day job, and two small sons. NO way could I go and find out.  But my brother-in-law had worked as crew on a dredger from the age of 13 until World War II, when he lied about his age and enlisted. I sat him down for a day or two and recorded everything he told me about that life.  I knew the women's half, having been home, alone (just me, the dogs, cats, and chickens), during Hurricane Hazel.

I had great fun writing it and all my friends and relations -- knowing the culture -- liked it fine and told me lots more storm stories.

First of all, having grown up reading the 10,000 word published "short stories" in the Saturday Evening Post of the 50s, I tried to sell it as a short story and collected a record 69 rejections before someone told me to quit that as it was really a novella.  Then I saw a contest asking for novellas and decided to give it one more shot. Surprise, just when I was ready to give up writing forever, it won! It was only luck that got me to send it there at all.

Luck does help. But now back to the key element. Imagination! Some never are able to imagine how another person would think and feel and that's not always a bad thing. Many writers base their characters on themselves. It is always good to write what you know. The late Dick Francis's jockeys are almost always based on his own experiences. Tom Clancey once worked for Naval intelligence. Clive Cussler was an underwater demolitions expert with NOAH, and his character, Dirk Pitt, drives Clive's antique cars. And they are all successful writers who have incorporated part of their own personal experiences in what they write.

I, too, in earlier times, wrote several novellas that revolved around courts and the law. I am not a lawyer, or a cop either. But I was a newspaper reporter and my beat was cops and courts. So I spent a lot of time there, listening and learning. I wrote factual stories about cases I covered for the paper, and fictional ones using the real situations but changing the names and often the outcomes, for other markets.

So yes, use the experiences that you have had and I'll bet you can think of many if you try. Behind ever bored housewife, lives a sassy teenager, a young lover, a woman who has faced many challenges. But don't forget that you can learn about experiences that you don't have, too. Research can make it real. Veteran watermen have complimented me on that story, saying, "You must have done a lot of sailing."

Well no. When I wrote DROWNED LAND, I had actually never set foot on a sailboat of any kind. But my brother-in-law, Robert Stoker Hill had lived it and he generously shared his days with me and with all my readers.

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