Write from Your Life
Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links
I don’t know about you, but I’m always being told that an author needs to read voraciously and broadly. Consequently, I have a backlist of at least 150 books that I need to read in my copious amounts of free time. You know, free time. That thing I have between my full-time job, my writing, my podcasting, and the most time consuming of all hobbies: adulting. If your life is anything like mine, there is never enough time to chew through your stack of books that just keeps growing like some bizarre, literary fungus.
Good news: I’m here to help, I swear. Instead of delivering you a more standard book review, I want to focus in on what a certain book taught me about writing. You should be reading anyway, right? At least this way you can learn something useful as you do.
The story behind this bit of Book Learning is rather similar to that of Geekomancy: Nostalgia Powered Fiction. I first heard about Steve’s book on a Writing Excuses episode on Horror as a Subgenre and later had the fortune of sitting next to him one night on the 2016 Writing Excuses Cruise and Retreat. Whether due to the social nature of the cruise, the urging from the voices in my head, or the commands of a peculiar breed of brain-tunneling mollusk, the two of us got to talking.
Not only is Steve a professional author, he is also the founder and editor of elitistbookreviews.com, is deeply involved with vaultbooks.pub, and was the manager for the top-ranked Waldenbooks Store in the country. Beyond that, he also happens to be a really smart and fun guy. After an enlightening conversation on some of the twisted gears turning inside the horror genre, I snapped up Residue as soon as I was back on solid ground. I’d be lying if I said I read it right away, but it certainly rocketed back to the top of my list.
But aside from the obvious correlation between talking with me and me reading your book, what can we learn from this experience
It’s simple really. In fact, it’s an age-old bit of writing advice.
Write What You Know!
Oh, don’t give me that. It’s a useful lesson. I only mention it because Residue drastically changed my understanding of that simple statement. So please, allow me to explain.
As common as it is, this piece of advice contains many apparent fallacies and exceptions when applied to real writers. After all, how many people do you know that have personally ridden a dragon, staked a vampire, or overthrown a bloodthirsty tyrant? Unless you happen to be H.P. Lovecraft, your chances of coming face to face with an Elder God are rather slim. So how can we possibly write believable fiction if we are supposed to “write what you know?”
Well, you can always take copious amounts of hallucinogens and go on a killing spree in a desperate gambit to experience the thrill of cutting down a swarm of undead. Or you can take what I like to call, “the interpretive approach” and examine the facets of your life and infuse them into your stories.
It’s another one of those simple, yet impossible tasks. Focus on your experience, how it made you feel, think, and react and apply that to your characters. It’s a great exercise to make them feel less like words on a page and more like breathing people.
From our conversations, I knew that Steve’s dad was a cop and his family lived in constant fear that he might not come home one day. So when the main character’s father goes missing (it’s not a spoiler if it’s on the back cover), I could almost see Steve reliving one of his oldest fears through his fiction. The parallels were obvious to me, but different enough to categorize this as the “interpretive approach.”
Apparently, that’s not the only way to use this advice.
“The Literal Approach”
During our time on the cruise our conversations, shockingly, turned to the topic of writing. In addition to dishing out some powerful advice on planning and growing the sense of horror in a story, I learned that Steve is scared of sharks. In fact, he told me about a particularly vivid and/or stupid experience involving chum filled waters and a shark-cage that was far shorter than anticipated.
Sounds interesting, but what does this have to do with anything?
I was speeding my way through Residue when I reached a passage detailing that exact experience for one of the characters. This wasn’t a case of recasting his life to add more depth to a character. No, Steve was directly stealing from his own life and sticking it unabashedly into the middle of his book.
When I say exact, I mean if the event came from another story rather than his life, it would be plagiarism. That’s not to say it was a “Mary Sue” moment because he did nothing to draw attention to its connection to his life. If I didn’t know Steve personally, I never would have spotted this little anomaly.
I was stunned.
And that is the point of all this.
Here’s the best bit: there’s absolutely nothing stopping you or me from doing the exact same thing.
It wasn’t long before I had a dozen different memories that I wanted to weave into my next story. New options that I had never considered were suddenly plain as a drop of blood on my dress shirt. Your life is a goldmine of experiences for your characters and your stories. Seriously. Think about it. Oh, and go read
Seriously. Think about it. See what you can come up with. Oh, and go read
Oh, and go read Residue and see if you can find the scene I’m talking about. I loved the book. I wouldn’t spend so much time talking about it otherwise. If this doesn’t convince you, maybe you should listen to Larry Correia (author of Monster Hunter International) when he selected it for a “Book Bomb Post.” The initial event is long past, but the book is still worth buying.
Question: Do you “write what you know” my way or Steve’s way?
Thanks for stopping by. Until next time, keep reading and keep learning.