By Lilian Duval, author of YOU NEVER KNOW
“Write what you know.” That’s familiar advice for authors of fiction, and it makes sense. How can you bring readers into the magical world of fiction if you don’t know what you’re writing about?
Here are 3 ways to write what you know, and convincingly:
1. Write About Where You Live or Visit
These famous writers wrote what they knew and lived:
- John Cheever, who articulately and mercilessly chronicled suburbanites in his stories and novels, was a longtime and happy resident of Ossining, a Hudson Valley suburb north of New York City.
- Carson McCullers was born in Columbus, Georgia and rooted in the deep South, as were her novels, stories, and plays.
- Edward P. Jones, whose fictional characters mostly inhabit Washington, D.C., is himself a D.C. native.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t write credible fiction about a place that you don’t call home. But it’s imperative to visit or read intensively about a new place before you make it your fictional setting.
2. Write About Your Characters’ Occupations and Hobbies
“Write what you know” implies familiarity with more than the place where you live. If your characters work on an assembly line, you need to spend some time in the factory and see what it’s like to toil there hour after hour, day after day.
Let’s say that your character is an amateur tennis player, and you’re the sort of person who ducks when a ball comes your way. No problem! Go to your local tennis club with a pen and a pad, and hang around the snack shop for a while. People will be happy to talk to you and help you with your project. Here’s an example of convincing fictional tennis, written by a decidedly non-racket-swinging author:
Martin played a serve-and-volley strategy, forcing Tobias to be tentative and defend himself from the baseline. Having lost the first set 7–5, Tobias renewed his game with strong backhand passing shots mixed in with well-timed lobs. Martin, frustrated, made avoidable mistakes and lost to Tobias, 10–8, in a tiebreaker.
After a quick break during which no one spoke much, even Carmela, Martin said, “Let’s bang it out like old times—a fight to the finish.” Using the third-set strategy on which he’d been coached in college, Martin made a show of patience and spent more time at the baseline.
Tobias’s strategy of lobs and backhand passing shots was now ineffective. Martin was no longer charging to the net, and Tobias couldn’t come up with an alternate game plan.
Abruptly, on the final match point, Martin reversed tactics again by hitting deep to the center court and charging to the net like a sprinter. Tobias, nonplussed, answered with a short lob. Guiding his racket back, Martin hit a powerful overhead smash to put the game and the match on ice.
With Martin’s victory of 6–4 in the final set, Tobias, exhausted, ran to the net to shake hands. “What a way to end our rivalry,” he said. “You outlasted me. Congratulations—well done.”
—From the novel You Never Know by Lilian Duval
3. Write About Cultural Traditions
Let’s say you’re a member of the Roman Catholic Church and want to write about related customs and traditions. Just scan your memory bank and start typing about the nuns in grade school or what the priest said behind locked doors.
But what if you’re a Roman Catholic and you’re writing a story about a lapsed Catholic who gets involved with an Orthodox Jew living temporarily in New York City, down the hall from her apartment? He takes an interest in her artwork, and she falls helplessly in love with him. (She’d better, or there wouldn’t be any story!) Things simmer along nicely until he asks her to visit the mikvah—a ritual bath for women. He tells her frankly that this is a prerequisite to making love with her. Uh-oh…
What to do? Look up “mikvah” in the nearest city, call their office, and make an appointment for a visit. If you’re a man, you’ll have to get a female friend to do this for you. Go there with pen and pad, and get as much information as you can. Armed with the facts, you can write a piece so realistic that your readers will feel as if they’ve visited the place as well:
The entrance is marked only by a small sign, and I nearly walk past it. Inside, the floor is paved with intricate mosaic tiles, and the place is immaculate. “Are you Jewish?” the receptionist asks me.
“Yes,” I lie. I think she thinks I’m lying. She takes my money and walks me down the hall to a spacious, private preparation room containing towels, a big, white, fluffy robe, paper slippers, and a few bottles of lotions, moisturizers, nail polish remover, and cosmetics. The room could be part of an elegant spa, very modern, with pale, celadon green, floor-to-ceiling tiles. The sink and toilet are gleaming. There’s an “in” door and an “out” door.
I get undressed and put on the plush robe, which is voluminous; I feel like one of those English Sheepdogs where you can’t tell which end is the head and which is the tail. I press a button to ring the “ready” bell, and along comes an attendant, knocking on the “out” door. She walks me to the dunking place.
Now comes the cringy part of all this: the woman asks me, “Would you like me to check you over?” Aidan prepared me well enough for this experience that I know not to ask any incriminating questions, so I agree. She watches me remove the robe and examines my bare skin. This scrutiny is thorough enough for a dermatologist checking for precancerous moles, because you can’t have any open sores. She also inspects my fingernails and toenails—nail polish is forbidden. (I guess the same applies to oil paint.)
The woman begins to chant a prayer, one line at a time, and waits for me to repeat. It’s in Hebrew, something about your body’s rhythms and God’s mercy and being embraced by the warm water. I have a decent enough ear for languages to parrot back the phrases (at home we spoke Italian), but have no idea what I’m saying. I could be swearing an oath to Scientology for all I know. By now she’s aware that I’m bluffing, so I avoid her eyes. I just want to get through this thing. I climb down into the vat of warm rainwater and submerge the requisite three times, including my hair, which envelops me like a funnel cloud.
I take refuge in fluffy towels and the oversize robe, then return to my preparation room and get back into my clothes as fast as possible. On my way out through the central corridor, two or three other visitors glance my way, and I realize that I’ve forgotten to tie on my head covering. Now I’m feeling like the new girl in the eighth grade who mistakenly sits at the popular table in the lunchroom. I trot to the exit and slip out gratefully into the anonymity of the Upper West Side, shivering with dripping hair on this late-September evening that turned chilly while I was inside.
—From the story collection Random Acts of Kindness by Lilian Duval
Wherever you live, whatever work you do, whichever tradition you follow, there’s always a way to bring these places and activities into your fiction convincingly. Either you write what you know and what you’ve lived, or you go to that place, talk to people who live that way, and taste that tradition yourself. Fortified by experience, you’re qualified to chronicle any place and any activity in fiction that takes your readers exactly where you want to invite them.
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