According to the song by Three Dog Night, experience is as much a state of mind than an actual residence, and sometimes a person can know a place without ever visiting it. We already talked about writing with what you’ve got, but one of the most prominent pieces of advice to writers is to write what you know.
Now I’ll be the first to admit I’ve often found myself drawing from my own experiences when I’m shaping my stories. My characters have been artists and carpenters, bakers and woodworkers. They’ve lived in California and the Midwest, in New England and Louisiana. They’ve been sisters and mothers, wives and ex-girlfriends. They’ve loved to cook and loved to dance, laughed too loud, spoke their minds more than they probably should, and never met a glass of wine or a stinky cheese they didn’t like.
But for all the adventures that I’ve been fortunate to experience in my own life, there are plenty of life experiences that I want my characters to know that I’ve never known.
So what constitutes what you know?
What if you have a character who is going through a divorce and you as a writer have never been married? Does that mean you can’t authentically and convincingly portray the scope of emotions faced by a person going through a divorce? Must you have had the exact experience to understand and accurately convey the emotional components of that experience to your readers? Or is there something universal about love? About fear? About grief?
I happen to think there is, and for that reason, I don’t necessarily shy away from emotional situations in a manuscript that I might not have experience with. I have been lucky in life to have wonderful, wonderful friends who have kindly and lovingly shared both their joyous and darker times, as good friends do with one another, and I have listened and remembered their reactions to their lives’ twists and turns, as I have my own. Because writers don’t simply write, they share. They convey, they create and they explore.
What about you all? Do you feel most comfortable writing stories with characters who are facing similar life situations to your own? Or do you plot events for which you may not have a great deal of personal reference to draw from?