Write What (or Who) You Know, Part I

I've never been sold on the old saw, "Write what you know," but I have to admit it has its moments. Faced with difficult and convoluted plotting (which only on the rarest of occasions reflects my own experience, thank goodness) I tend to mix and match aspects of my own personality and/or the personalities of people I've known, to create a new mash-up that takes on a new life of its own.

When I begin a character with the personality of a real person, I find it's a great, shorthand method of getting a handle on my fictional creation. After the book's released, I'm always a little nervous that the real person may recognize herself in the character she's inspired, but so far, that's never happened. For one thing, I'm very careful to change identifying features. For another, the book's plot and other fictional characters substantially alter the "based-on" characters until I'm the only one aware of the connection.

Many of my books are inspired by real-life events "ripped from the headlines" (to borrow a term. At their starting point, I read or hear about some provocative/horrifying/outrageous/frightening situation and wonder "What if that happened to me? How would I react?" Consequently, many of my books' protagonists have the same life concerns (raising a kiddo, worries over aging parents, anxiety over bills or jobs) I've experienced. They also, especially in the case of the heroines, tend to live in settings and have careers with which I'm familiar. I've written a couple of stories featuring teachers (my previous career - and I can tell you, it gives me much joy to poke fun at school boards or gossipy PTO moms from a safe distance), one with a traveling hospice nurse (my sister's job), and another with an asthmatic female firefighter (my husband's a firefighter and I have asthma, so I'd always wondered how awful it would be to be a committed firefighter who finds herself developing that condition).

None of my characters really are me, but they often share my observations, secret sarcastic thoughts, and weird fixations (i.e. Bluebell Homemade Vanilla ice cream and hand-carved Oaxacan animals). The heroes often react in ways in keeping with the macho guys I've known and loved (no affected pretty boys or metrosexuals need apply) and tend toward overtly manly careers rather than desk jobs.

These are the people I understand, the people whose heads I can most easily get inside of. Which is critical, because as I develop the story, I'm about to dump them into serious hot water. (A marketing-oriented friend recently asked me to define my novels' core message. "That's easy," I told her, "It's 'Regular people in deep sh*t.'")

Faced with extraordinary circumstances, I'm always more comfortable with a little familiarity. And I find those particular characters are often my most memorable and compelling.

So what about the rest of you? Do you interweave familiar settings, events from your own life, or character aspects with elements from your own imagination? If so, how do you handle the blending of the real and the imaginary?

Pictured: Woman Standing In Front Of A Mirror 1841
by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg


TJ Bennett said…
Hmmm. I thought I recognized that court reporting student in your last book.....

jenny milchman said…
This is such a good topic, I could write for way too long on it, so I will just say that every so often a character appears who by all rights I should know nothing about. A male architect in his seventies. Or a pile driver. (OK, not a pile driver.) And amidst all the rewriting that is always necessary, I get those magic words in response: How did you know that?

Are all these people bubbling around in our subconsciouses, culled from details we didn't even know we'd buried there? I don't know. It really does feel like magic to me sometimes.
You're write about the magic, Jenny. Sometimes it's absent, other times it dribbles, but every so often it gushes out and surprises us.
Lark said…
I was wondering why my stories are so outlandish. Guess I've been writing what I know. :)

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