Three Ways Travel Subtly Shapes Fiction

Travel acts as an agent of change, relocating characters and propelling them into new situations.

If reading is akin to journeying into the perspectives of others, then it’s little wonder that some of those vantages will include actual voyages. Travel1 in writing fascinates, because of its seemingly endless vistas, encounters with fascinating folk, and potential for adventure, adversity, and the unexpected. For fiction writing (our focus here), only the writer’s imagination serves as the limit: travel can acquire fantastic elements (ie, time travel, interstellar exploration) or mirror the more mundane to remarkable expeditions currently within the realm of possibility. However, travel’s role in fiction isn’t limited to bringing characters in contact with new places, people, and experiences. Travel also quietly influences some of the less overt areas of storytelling. Here’s three ways in which travel more subtly shapes a story.

Hooked on Travel

Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse opens with the Ramsay family discussing a possible expedition to said lighthouse, the train in “The Story-Teller” by Saki (more formally, H. H. Munro) is already en route to its next destination as the story of a bachelor and three bored children starts, and Yosiko Uchida’s “Tears of Autumn” introduces us to Hana Omiya as her long trip across the sea concludes. Countless stories ranging from the classics (The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer) to children’s literature (The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett) mention travel in their story hooks for a good reason: travel intrigues readers, because it evokes notions of discovery, exploration, and escape. When people travel, they alter their routine, and readers become curious as to why. Consider Uchida’s character, Hana, who watches the American coastline approach in the beginning of “Tears of Autumn”. Whether readers accurately assume that she’s an immigrant or guess that she’s a visitor, they likely will ask why she chose to venture so far from home, where she is headed, and what she expects to do when she arrives. And that’s what hooks are meant to do: present scenarios that intrigue readers and leave them with questions that will motivate them to read more.

In the Mood to Meander

Travel’s most discernible effect on storytelling occurs in the setting. Setting, of course, depicts where the story occurs, and travel obviously allows writers to use multiple settings.2 As Courtney’s Carpenter’s article reminds us, setting also conveys critical background information about (to name a few) a story’s timeline, its climate, and, importantly, its mood. Mood is the oddball of setting. While most other features of setting provide concrete details that establish an impression of a specific place and time, the mood instead evokes feelings about that place within the reader. Fortunately, travel creates natural opportunities3 for writers to describe their setting and its associated mood as characters survey their surroundings. In “Tears of Autumn”, Uchida describes Hana arriving on a “small ship that shuddered toward America in a turbulent November sea. She shivered as she pulled the folds of her silk kimono close to her throat and tightened the wool shawl about her shoulders….” In addition to leaving clues that suggest Hana’s homeland (Japan), her approximate location (ship approaching west coast of North America), the weather, and an idea of when she sailed (probably before the 1940s4), this excerpt gives readers a feel for this place. Uchida’s wording here—“turbulent…sea” and the small boat’s shudder echoed by Hana’s shivers—suggests a cold, unsettled environment. The combination hints at apprehension, thus neatly prefiguring Hana’s worries about her new homeland and husband. Whether the mood concurs with the viewpoint character’s feelings (as occurs here) or counters it, travel lets writers move their characters while setting up the story’s emotional undertones, thus giving readers a sense of the story’s upcoming conflicts.

Three Subtle Ways Travel Shapes Fiction
Travel provides writers with a natural opportunity to depict the setting and its mood, neatly underscoring the emotional backdrop of the tale that often presages conflicts over the horizon.

 

Motivation: The Why Behind the Wander

Travel acts as an agent of change, relocating characters and propelling them into new situations. Behind these journeys, however, exists some goal or desire. Falling under the umbrella of character motivation, such goals provide rationale that explains why characters exit their familiar environs. Within this context, the underlying motives for travel can profoundly affect the story regardless of whether (a) travel is central to the narrative and (b) is the character’s primary motivation/goal in the story. And fictional characters, much like real people, roam for myriad reasons. While such motivations can be straightforward, some tales obscure character’s true motives. In Rebecca, author Daphne du Maurier introduces Max de Winter and the narrator, the future Mrs. de Winter, while they’re traveling. The narrator’s reason for being in Monte Carlo is transparent: she works as a paid companion. However, most people assume that Max travels to distance himself from his grief, an assumption that appears to be confirmed when states he want to forget his past. Although it’s true he wants to escape his memories, it has nothing to do with sorrow.5 Lacking this insight, the narrator misconstrues Max’s behavior throughout the novel and becomes convinced he wed her solely to avoid being alone.

Three Ways Travel Subtly Shapes Fiction
When writers give characters such as Max de Winter (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier) hidden motivations for traveling, they use misdirection to surprise both readers and viewpoint characters, often allowing a dramatic transformation of the plot.

Neither misdirection nor complication, however, are uncommon when dealing with characters’ motivation. Writers frequently compel their characters to undertake journeys for several, nuanced, or even complex reasons. Hana Omika’s ostensible reason for sailing to the United States is to get married. Of course, one needn’t cross an ocean to wed. Clearly, this independent-minded young woman seeks more than matrimony, namely greater freedom than her family and village would otherwise allow had she remained in Japan. Finally, it’s important to remember that, since travel can be transformative, character motivation may alter in response to events occurring on a trip. This effect is most clearly observed when adventures take disastrous turns. In such tales, characters’ former reasons for travel are swept away as their goal becomes survival (eg, the shipwreck in Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch). Even in less dramatic instances (eg, when Macon Leary’s bad back inadvertently leads to him confronting his lifelong inaction in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist), the results are the same: the character’s desires change. No matter where the will to wander leads characters or how circumstances change its direction, characters reasons for setting forth helps shape how the story’s conflicts and plot unfold.

Writing Wanderers

Travel allows writers a broader landscape in which they set their characters afield. But in the subtler aspects of storytelling, they also can incorporate details that captures readers’ interest, direct their feelings, or show them the desires that launches these journeys. As these example show, stories gain depth and direction when writers focus their efforts on both evident and understated features of their travel stories.

NOTES:


  1. While we tend to think of travel in terms of vacations, travel technically encompasses many types of journeys of varying lengths and import. Travelers can be sailors, refugees, holiday makers, pilgrims, explorers, commuters, soldiers, pilots/air stewards, business people, etc. 
  2. In fairness, these locations may only be mentioned in passing or implied (in the sense that a traveler had to come from somewhere). 
  3. Traveling excels at making people observe the surrounding when they are on the move or when they arrive somewhere. In fiction, therefore, nothing seems more natural than when a narrator or a viewpoint character takes a moment to comment on the scenery as they pass by. 
  4. Since Hana arrives by boat, there’s a strong likelihood her flight occurred before the 1960s when flying started to become more accessible. Her travel, however, likely occurred before the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II (1941). As it happens, the United States and Canada both severely limited Japanese immigrants in 1907/8 under the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan. In the United States, “picture brides” such as Hana were permitted to immigrate up to 1924, after which all Japanese immigration was banned until 1965. 
  5. Max likely wants to escape a bit more than his bad memories. Since most believe he and Rebecca were happily wed, he has no reason to dispel the notion that he mourns her. He’s the sort who would choose to keep his marital distress private in any case, but he certainly has additional cause to maintain appearances. 

Writing Nevers

Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal.

During grad school, I enrolled in a course that focused on writing personal essays. While I regularly sought out opportunities to improve my writing, my interest in this course partially stemmed from my inexperience with the genre. I’d been in many writing classes and workshops since my teenaged years, but I mostly wrote poetry, fiction, and academic papers. I didn’t (and don’t) keep a journal.1 Discounting those personal statements for college applications, I’d written very little from my perspective.2 Clearly, I missed a stop on my writing journey.

As with all new to new-ish ventures, it took me some time to acclimatize to writing personal essays: I initially found it challenging to unpack my own experiences and turn them into writing material for the weekly theme. I eventually found my pace, and some of my anecdotes made a point well or earned an intended chuckle. But I could see I still had some way to go before I reached real proficiency. And however much I enjoyed the course (reading my classmates’ essays often was inspiring), it seemed unlikely that I’d revisit the personal essay. I never felt quite at home writing about myself.

After writing about a year’s worth of blog posts, I’d like to concede that I may have been mistaken.3

Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal. Any time spent writing or learning about writing isn’t wasted for a writer,4 because more writing makes us write better. And what blogging taught me this year was that I didn’t need to make any grand decisions about future writing. As it happens, I discovered that writing from my viewpoint became easier once I recognized the direction it would take: discussing my writing and reading experiences. I don’t doubt that there are stories that are not mine to tell or genres that I will not master, but the only thing saying never did was limit the paths my writing could take. And frankly, that’s a terrible way to end a tale.

NOTES:


  1. For the record, kudos to everyone who keeps a journal and can, whenever they so desire, peruse a record of events, thoughts, impressions, etc. At present, my attempts still tend to produce writing that has grating “dear diary” tone that kinda bores me. 
  2. Unless we’re counting the occasional insertion of inappropriate humor and slightly knowing/know-it-all tone, in which case yes, that would be me. 
  3. Before this descends into a not-so-humble brag, I’ve still think I’ve ways to go before I hit the summit for amazing writing. 
  4. As it happens, I left that class with a greater appreciation of the personal essay format, which helped me become a more critical reader of them. 

Hook, Line, and the Writer

Successful hooks pose more questions than answers, making the reader curious. And an intrigued reader is one that keeps reading.

While writing my last post on books that linger on the to-read pile, I briefly mentioned the narrative hook, as it helped explain what I meant by being hooked into a story. At the time, I recalled several great openings to stories, ones that I subsequently read and enjoyed. But looking at these lines from a writer’s perspective now, I wondered what specifically makes such lines so intriguing that a reader simply must read the rest of the story. Any quick survey of novels and stories shows that authors use various approaches to create a hook: compelling/quirky characters, dramatic situations, unusual settings, weather, memories, recounting advice, humor, and so forth. But regardless of the tactic used, these storytelling hooks pique the readers’ interest by presenting them with a scenario that raises questions, the kind that can only be answered by reading further. In the following, I’ve provided three examples of stories that illustrate how writers use their opening lines to land their reader’s attention.

Hook, Line, and Writer. Text by Rita E. Gould

Beloved

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.”—Beloved, Toni Morrison

Morrison elects to drop us straight into the middle of Beloved’s events to ensure that readers, much like Paul D, don’t know why 124 happens to be such an unhappy place when they first encounter it. The sequence of story events has a role in constructing the hook, because the story’s impact hinges on how the reader gains information. In a novel like this one, beginning in media res allows readers to experience Paul D’s shock of discovery as well as introduces uncertainty about how events will unfold once this truth is divulged. Therefore, this hook needs to hint at the terrible disclosure to come without revealing much about it or its consequences, a tactic that also generates a mystery. Morrison’s uses a surprising metaphor (ie, surprising insofar as we normally don’t think of homes as spiteful or babies as being venomous) to signal the lingering malevolence of the as-yet undisclosed past, which suggests the house is haunted—perhaps literally—by the deceased child, Beloved.1 These lines, therefore, raise questions about what created this discord (Why is 124 spiteful? What happened there?) as well as build anticipation for that discovery.

Hook, Line, and Writer. Text by Rita E. GouldThe Lovely Bones

“Inside the snow globe on my father’s desk, there was a penguin wearing a red-and-white-striped scarf….The penguin was alone in there, I thought, and I worried for him. When I told my father this, he said, “Don’t worry, Susie; he has a nice life. He’s trapped in a perfect world.”

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”—The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones is a curious case when it comes to the narrative hook, because the first lines of the novel aren’t in the first chapter: they occur in the prefatory paragraph preceding this chapter. While the goal of the preface is to provide readers with readers background material that somehow informs the story and is technically not part of the story’s action, it’s the text that the reader sees first, meaning that preface also needs to capture the reader’s attention. However, I’d argue that the first chapter also needs a hook, because that’s where the story begins—a critical consideration since readers may overlook or skip the preface.2 For this reason, I’ll discuss how both The Lovely Bones’ preface and first lines from chapter one work as hooks.

Sebold’s preface, which recounts a memory, represents an instance in which the entire paragraph serves as the hook. While this memory initially appears to focus on an ordinary father—daughter bonding moment, its true significance emerges when Susie interrupts their play to express her concern for the penguin in the globe. Her father comforts her, but in doing so he describes the penguin’s “nice life” as a trap. It’s subtle, but the association of perfection with a trap is unexpected and unpleasant (traps aren’t reassuring), one that makes readers wonder how this idea will affect these characters going forward.3 Here, the reader asks: How can a perfect world act as a trap? How does this apply to these characters?

In contrast to Beloved’s opening lines that intrigue readers by hinting at a tragedy, The Lovely Bones’s first chapter begins by revealing its traumatic inciting event.4 An older Susie introduces herself directly to the reader and then stuns them with her dramatic announcement. The name-based joke juxtaposed with her murder defies conversational norms and unsettles the reader. Naturally, the reader asks has questions: Why was she murdered? Who killed her? It’s the question of what will happen next that matters most to The Lovely Bones, as it focuses on the aftermath of Susie’s murder for her family and herself in “her heaven”.

Hook, Line, and Writer. Text by Rita E. Gould

Rebecca

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”—Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

What makes the opening line of Rebecca so interesting is how much it accomplishes in a brief sentence. In a few words, the reader knows this place holds powerful associations for the unidentified narrator and suggests a possible loss—the narrator only dreams of going there. And we already have questions: what kind of place is Manderley? Why is it so important to the narrator? Why does this person recurrently dream about it? du Maurier’s first chapter, utilizing the combination of a mysterious setting and dream sequence, builds on this first line to suggest a tragedy. Since Rebecca begins in the aftermath of some unknown, ominous event, it’s important that the hook (as was the case with Beloved) suggest more than it reveals—particularly since the remainder of the novel (starting midway through chapter two) reveals, via extended flashback, the events that led to this calamity.

SUMMARY

Building a good hook often involves introducing the element of surprise. Writers need to catch the reader off guard by presenting a situation that somehow doesn’t behave normally, whether it’s a spiteful house or the penguin “trapped in the world”, there should be something (or someone) that sidesteps ordinary expectations. Successful hooks pose more questions than answers, making the reader curious. And an intrigued reader is one that keeps reading.

NOTES:


  1. Beloved, we discover late in the novel once had a proper name, but it’s neither used nor revealed in the novel. 
  2. Using a preface, therefore, provides a writer with two opportunities to hook or lose the reader’s attention. 
  3. Initially, I wondered if Jack, Susie’s father, felt trapped him by his own lovely life but that specific desperation proved to be another character’s problem, which means the preface also introduces some narrative misdirection to keep the reader guessing. 
  4. Inciting events represent actions or decision that sets the story in motion (here, Susie’s murder). The sequence of events may be linear or flashback to how events led to inciting incident, as is the case here. Susie’s murder also represents the uses of an external force as the initial driver of the plot. 

Writing Done Wrong: Breaking the Rules to Grab the Reader’s Attention

Along with a tendency to have strong opinions about the Oxford comma, working as a professional editor means that I tend to find errors in texts even when I’m off duty.[*] However, there are moments when discovering instances of inaccuracy places me in the position of a sleuth. When I’m reading fiction or poetry, I sometimes find what initially looks likes an overlooked error (eg, missing spaces, unusual line breaks, nonstandard spelling) that forms a pattern. And patterns in writing signal intent on the writer’s part.

Writing Done Wrong: Breaking Rules to Grab the Reader’s Attention. Text by Rita E. Gould
This excerpt of Jorie Graham’s poem, “The Errancy”, demonstrates how unconventional line breaks create a halting rhythm when reading the poem.

So, why deliberately add what reads superficially as a mistake? Ignoring writers with idiosyncratic preferences,[†]  violating the conventions of written language—more properly called its orthography[‡]—usually isn’t done to make proofreaders, betas, and grammar pickers twitch. Rather, it represents an artistic approach to drawing the readers’ attention to the text. Considering orthography encompasses spelling, punctuation, emphasis, and so forth, writers can play with written form in numerous ways. While I cannot document all these approaches, I’ll provide several examples where writers ignore conventional usages from the aforementioned categories as well as explain why they did so.

Nonstandard Spelling and Punctuation

Of course, nonstandard spelling and punctuation are the two categories where we’re most likely to assume the author introduced a typo versus deliberately chose incorrect usage. I certainly thought this was the case when I noticed the first instance where quotation marks that usually denote dialogue were absent in The Snow Child. Eowyn Ivey’s novel is based on the Russian folktale, Sneugurochka. In this tale, a childless couple build a child from snow that magically transforms into a real child. Ivey’s novel differs from the source material in that the story points to two possible origins for Faina, one magical and one more mundane. Once I realized that the “error” in Ivey’s novel recurred only when the dialogue involved Faina, I correctly suspected that Ivey eliminated the quotation marks to subtly call our attention to the uncertainty surrounding Faina’s true nature.

Writing Done Wrong: Breaking Rules to Grab the Reader’s Attention. Text by Rita E. Gould
In The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey leaves Faina’s potentially magical origin unresolved, something she signals by omitting quotation marks when the dialogue involves Faina.

However, unconventional orthography isn’t always so subtle as absent punctuation. Perhaps the most recognizable—and potentially controversial—form of unconventional orthography occurs when a writer decides to reproduce dialect by spelling by how the word sounds (also called pronunciation respelling). As Jennifer Sommer observes, dialect adds a level of authenticity.[§] Used respectfully, it can identify where a character is from or help establish the setting (eg, “y’all” suggests the southern United States). In contrast, other uses of nonstandard spelling can be thought provoking. Throughout Beloved, Toni Morrison spells words such as “whitelady”, “coloredfolk”, and “blackman” without a space between the person(s) and their race. Beloved focuses on the pervasive damage slavery inflicted on former black slaves and how it destroys their sense of personhood. With the mere deletion of a space, Morrison points out how (even today) we view people through the lens of racial identity versus their individuality.

Emphasis

Emphasis (eg, bold, italics, underline, small caps, capitalization) in written language serves the purpose of drawing attention to the text, and it’s strikingly similar to the goal writers have when they use emphasis unconventionally. However, the quintessential difference lies in why emphasis is being employed. Traditional use of emphasis works something like a helpful signpost as we travel through a text. All capital letters appear when we read headlines or warnings, boldface titles mark the start of a new section, a capital letter starts a sentence, italics let us know that phrase isn’t misspelled but comes from another language, and so forth. They point to transitions and notify us when we need to observe something more carefully.

Writing Done Wrong: Breaking Rules to Grab the Reader’s Attention. Text by Rita E. Gould
Much like nonstandard spelling for dialect, unconventional emphasis can visually convey information about speech.[**] Terry Pratchett used this approach to characterize Death (from the Discworld series) by having him speak in small caps, because his skeletal form lacks vocal cords. Therefore, his “hollow voice” resounds directly in the listener’s brain.

Unconventional usage of emphasis, however, asks the readers to pay attention to the text’s content. Conventionally, the pronoun “I” is always capitalized. E. E. Cummings chose to forgo this formality in his poem, “i like my body when it’s with your”, a tactic that immerses the reader into an intimate environment where a lover engages in pillow talk. While there are moments when unconventional emphasis points to a transition, such instances tend to make us focus more carefully on the text. Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian (trans. Deborah Smith) contains a chunk of italicized text that interrupts the narrative of that section’s primary narrator (Mr. Cheong) and switches to another character’s dream (his wife, Yeong-hye). But italics signal more than this transition.[††] Yeong-hye, as I noted elsewhere, is nearly unknowable character in a story about her mental illness, partly because she does not serve as one of the primary narrators. This passage and other, increasingly shorter disjointed statements (also italicized) provide a nebulous insight into her deteriorating mental state, but the reader never finds a definitive reason as to why her sanity falters.

Unorthodox Orthography

Providing an overarching reason as to why writers decide to ignore conventional orthography is difficult because these decisions serve multiple purposes, whether the writer asks the reader to lean in and hear how people speak or whether they challenge us to think about race and mental health. What these examples have in common, though, is that authors use these techniques to stimulate their readers’ curiosity. The result is that the reader becomes an active participant in their reading, following the clues that inform the text. As such, discarding conventions such as these provides writers with another means by which they engage their readers.

NOTES:

[*] Consider it an occupational hazard that makes reading menus rather unpleasant.

[†] Kurt Vonnegut’s distaste for semicolons comes to mind.

[‡] Colloquially speaking, we’d call this grammar. But since we’re looking at general rules for how language appears on the page, I’m going to stick with the fustier term.

[§] Sommer’s article focuses mostly on objections to dialect, but there are examples illustrating sensitive uses of dialect.

[**] On the topic of how emphasis conveys speech, I considered mentioning that all caps is the visual equivalent of shouting, but it’s become quite common in the post-Internet era.  Arguably, using all caps to depict shouting could be considered common enough to be a convention.

[††] Eowyn Ivey uses italics to offset correspondence (ie, note a narrative transition) in The Snow Child, but this strikes me as an unnecessary flourish as the use of letter formatting adequately conveys this information.

The Writing Reboot

In which I finally give the boot to a several projects on the roster and move onto better writing prospects.

After a dismal and unproductive December, picking up where I left off my writing (and, to a lesser extent, reading)[*] has been challenging, especially where it concerns this blog. Some of the seasonal posts I planned, sadly, will remain postponed until a more appropriate moment. New post ideas for the new year need to be generated (of course), and there’s the small matter of what to do with those potential posts I thought would pan out but have produced, well, nothing. Whether they were in progress or in the notetaking stage, I’m finally admitting that I won’t continue writing on those topics.

There’s something terribly sad about shelving a project that once seemed so full of promise. Yet I feel it’s one of those painful and necessary parts of writing, much akin to revisions and editing. A particular sentence may stun with its style or gorgeous imagery, but it deserves deletion if it doesn’t flow with the paragraph it belong to. Similarly, a scene that doesn’t serve the story in terms of character insight, exposition, or plot development should be cut. And the same decisions must be made for writing projects that aren’t panning out. For example, I planned to write about my travels through the Seattle area in conjunction with a book set in that locale. As I began writing, though, I discovered that the tone of the two experiences didn’t mesh well and my interest waned.[†] And if I’m not excited what I’m attempting to write, I doubt someone else will find joy there, either.

Project officially scrapped.

So, I’m back to revising my list to make sure I’m ready for a writerly 2018. While it might be difficult to discard some of my ideas (especially the ones I sunk some time into developing), I’ve gained a better understanding of what interests me as a writer.[‡] With this awareness, I can better focus my writing time on more intriguing topics. Such as this great biography about a scientist who had a significant impact on how we understand nature, a topic which I’m looking forward to discussing at length in an upcoming post.

Have you decided to shelve a writing project? What made you decide it wasn’t worth pursuing further?

[*]Bookmarks and reading lists (such as Goodreads) excel at keeping one’s place.

[†] One sure sign that a project isn’t working out for me is that I keep electing to write about something, anything else every time I attempt to work on it.

[‡] And as someone whose deleted a post that I spent significant time writing and marketing, I’m far more pleased by decision to remove what doesn’t work than keep something that I feel is subpar.

Clean Sweep: Righting My Writing Space

When creative clutter turns catastrophe, it’s time to right your writing space.

Mistakes Were Made

Recently, I had a literal light bulb moment. The lamp on my desk, which had been flickering, made a popping noise and then everything—computer monitor included—went dark. A quick trip to the circuit breaker box, however, restored the power. My computer rebooted without problem and, happily, my documents were unharmed.[*] But as I wormed my way underneath my desk to unplug the offending lamp, I realized it was time I finally sorted out my writing space.

My writing desk lives in the bonus room of our house, an addition off our dining room that we use as office space. While it’s technically a shared space, I use this room the most, especially since my spouse decided its locale wasn’t quiet enough for conference calls when working from home. So, we spent a day (somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s Eve) moving me into a larger desk so that I could have more space for my writing and other projects.[†] While we succeeded in rearranging and discarding old furniture and miscellany, I still needed to organize where my assorted belongings would reside on the desk. Plus, there were several boxes that needed to be sorted and stowed…somewhere. But, given the hour, I reluctantly agreed to get to it later.

Ah, later. Such a fatal word.

From Creative Clutter to Catastrophe

Of course, I didn’t return to the task during the holidays (so many social calls) or afterwards (too busy). On occasion, I filed items or slipped some odds and ends away. More often, though, I nudged items under the desk, shuffled piles around my desk, and absentmindedly stuffed items in the drawers when something was in the way. And I continued to write and manage my other projects as usual. While I’m inclined to indulge in chores when I write,[‡] the one place I leave untouched is my desk; I like to spread out the books I’m reading or using for research as well as my notes while I’m at the keyboard. I rarely clear off my desk completely but I tuck away items I don’t need once I finish a project. But more and more items lingered on my desk because they had nowhere else to go.

For some time, though, it was little more than a nuisance. Although I was irked by the unfinished job, I promised myself I’d get to it eventually—with that eventuality occurring in some distant month. My dissatisfaction grew when I found myself searching for important documents I stashed in some obscure locale. When I had to stop writing to hunt for a hefty tome that had been swallowed by a pile of paperwork (and I’m not sure what else), it was a sign that my shuffling piles around to make a spot for writing notes wasn’t working well. Having to wriggle past now dusty boxes to find an outlet finally forced me to admit that it was time for a clean sweep. The constant interruptions were officially more annoying than the clutter itself. So, off I went to organize, however reluctantly.

Righting My Writing Space

When it comes to writing, there’s nothing wrong with a little desktop chaos.[§] The question is whether the writing space works for the writer. On any given day, multiple obligations and needs pull us in different directions, often taking us away from our writing. We don’t need to get in our own way as well. In my case, too much clutter distracted me from writing. Even when I wasn’t writing, being unable to find items I needed turned my writing space into a source of irritation when it should be the place where I focus on the words. Reorganizing my desk was just another step toward creating a better writing environment. And while my desk may not be magazine ready (and the office still needs work), I already feel less crowded.

NOTES:

[*] Documents that automatically save for the win!

[†] Arts and crafts as well as household finances, plus whatever comes up.

[‡] As noted in my first post a year ago!

[§] I’m told a messy desk is a sign of creativity. I’ve been very creative, apparently.

Writing Using Your Experiences: What We Really Mean by “Write What You Know”

Writers, particularly inexperienced ones, often are exhorted to “write what you know.[*] I first heard this advice mentioned during a session for my school’s creative writing workshop. While the remark wasn’t directed to me, I nonetheless considered it. Much of what I knew as a reasonably well-behaved teenager didn’t strike me as “page turner” material. It also wasn’t the sort of fiction I wrote then; among other things, I was dabbling in horror fiction without the dubious benefit of supernatural events in my life. But no one seemed to have objections to my writing in this vein, either. It was a moment where advice left me confused instead of enlightened.

Sleepy reader on a log
The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experiences would generate.

I’ve since realized the problem with this too pithy prescriptive involves how little guidance it provides. A short acquaintance with fiction demonstrates countless stories that incorporate research (eg, historical fiction) along with imagination instead of solely relying on the author’s personal history or knowledge. While we’re clearly not instructed to only write about what we know, the lack of further instruction (eg, how we should write about what we know) could be misinterpreted to imply that very limitation. We also tend to assume the “what we know” refers exclusively to our life events. The conclusion many arrive at (myself included) is that we’re told to fictionalize our lives. If what I know includes everything I know, then I certainly have permission to write about what I’ve learned from any source.[†] As a voracious reader of horror fiction, I knew quite a great deal about the genre—and that meant I already was writing what I knew though I didn’t appreciate it in that moment. But if such advice creates confusion, perhaps it’s time to reconsider what we really mean when we advise people to write what they know.

Inspiration and Information

  • Inspiration

The student in my workshop had asked for suggestions regarding what she should write about, and our mentor recommended writing about what she knew in the spirit of examining her personal experiences for topics that might work as a story. It’s the most common interpretation of “write what you know”, and I suspect it’s what most people intend when they dispense this advice. And drawing stories from our personal well of memories can be quite inspiring. Autobiographical novels such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women rely heavily on the incidents of the author’s life. Other authors use certain autobiographical details as a springboard for their stories, among them Amy Tan. Her novels often involve a strained mother-daughter relationship of an immigrant Chinese mother and her American-born daughter.[‡]

Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott and the inspiration for the March family home in Little Women
Louisa May Alcott used Orchard House (Concord, MA) as the basis for the March family home in Little Women but did not actually live there until she was 25. (Photo by R. Gould)

The crucial observation here is that these authors were inspired by their experiences. While Tan’s history as a first-generation American undoubtedly informed her novels, she chose to avoid fictionalizing actual events in favor of writing their emotional truth. And neither author felt beholden to strictly adhere to the literal truth because recreating actual events didn’t suit their stories. Alcott’s novel diverges factually from her life in several places. For example, Alcott did not grow up in a single home as a child (unlike the March girls) but moved 22 times. Faithfully replicating all those moves, however true to life they were, would have taken too much focus off the March girls’ adventures. Our experiences can be the starting place when we write fiction, but real events shouldn’t get the final word.

  • Informing the Text

If we’re rethinking “write what you know”, then it’s important to consider how else personal knowledge and experience otherwise influence our tales. Many authors use locales they know well to serve as their setting, as Alcott did when she based the March family home on her own home, Orchard House. Character development, of course, is another area where our knowledge helps us round characters by gifting them with skill sets, opinions, and interests (like hobbies) that we or others we know possess. Agatha Christie used her familiarity with her own profession when she created named Ariadne Oliver, a friend of Belgian detective Hercules Poirot, who just so happens to write mysteries featuring a foreign (not English) detective.

The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experienc
Including sensory details (crunching carrot) that we know lets the readers share our character’s experiences such as eating vegetables.

The familiar often diffuses subtly throughout fiction. Our knowledge of social scenarios, for example, guides what our characters’ behavior during dialogue. Characters in a kitchen don’t stand at attention and declaim lines: they lean against counters, clear away dishes, or sip beverages, depending on the story’s set up. Our experiences also provide us with the sights, sounds, touch, and smells we include in stories. Sensory details such as the crunch of a carrot allow readers to vividly experience what the characters do. Importantly, our experiences also allow us to make imaginative leaps. Even when we haven’t faced the same terrible ordeals our characters have, we know how we’ve been hurt, lost, abandoned, and heartbroken. We can use the emotions we’ve experienced in these moments to connect ourselves as well as our readers to what our character undergoes. Knowledge of our identity, too, lets us question how people different from us may feel differently or similarly in a given situation. And yes, our experiences, when they’re lacking, signal when we need to research and fill in what we don’t know.

Writing Using Our Experiences and Knowledge

What we know and our experiences, in some ways, define where fiction begins. They inspire what we write and give narratives depth that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s why using our experiences to inspire our work as well as fill in the myriad details of story is good advice.

Read More

Bret Anthony Johnston’s article “Don’t Write What You Know” in The Atlantic. I found this article after I’d written much of mine, and it provides thought-provoking nuance and insights on this topic.

NOTES:

[*] I’ve previously written about how writing advice often is presented as a set of “rules” when it should be treated as guidance that can be used or dispensed with as needed. “Write what you know” isn’t specifically discussed there, but it certainly warrants some clarification.

[†] To give a somewhat snarky example, I don’t have to experience radiation poisoning to explain why uranium can be dangerous. I can refer to what I learned in science courses.

[‡] Fiona Mitchell discusses the concept of having “one story to tell” in her article “Have You Got More than One Story?”. As she observes (and Tan illustrates), there are many ways to tell that one story.