Understanding Writer Lingo
Write what you know. It’s a phrase many have heard and have quoted. It seems like a simple thing. However, I never had a firm and full understanding of this phrase until recently. I can’t be the only one, so here’s my experience and thoughts.
When I first attempted writing, I figured it was a broad statement, so I made a couple logical leaps: I was in the Navy for four years, so I should probably write about the Navy or sailors; I was also a carpenter for four years, so I should probably write about that or have characters who are carpenters.
While my early assumptions were somewhat true, that wasn’t the full extent of it.
Yes, I’ve written fiction that includes sailors. Really, they’re space-sailors, so military sci-fi. I’ve also written fiction that includes carpenters. However, that carpenter is also a witch-hunter.
Was I writing what I know? Yes.
However, writing what you know also includes micro detail.
I’ve written what I know while describing gravel roads. Those gravel roads are very much like the roads I lived and biked on as a child. I’ve written about a lake cabin. That lake cabin resembles one I visited before a trip into the Boundary Waters. However, those details are still broad, still macro.
Tapping into what you know as a writer becomes far more micro.
I’ve described the scent of a thrift store, the mineral crust on a terracotta planter, the brass tacks on a vinyl bar stool, the build-up of floor wax next to a church pew, the sheen of neon on slick streets, the smack of a plywood door, the lobes of lichen on a fountain, the crackle of crushed granite under sneakers.
While it seems as though these are just minor details, they are all moments I’ve taken from my life. I’ve written what I know. And, really, it isn’t those sweeping life experiences—Navy and carpenter—that influence my writing most. It’s the personal details that add realism to settings, details readers may identify with, relate to. Because it’s those details from everyday experiences we share.
I make it a point each day to cue into the micro details I may add to my writing later. Sometimes I look at those details as though I’m one of my characters and wonder how they might perceive those details.
I don’t write these details down. I don’t record them in some flip pad like Columbo licking his fingers and flicking each page while asking a suspect the next, supposedly forgotten question. Somehow that makes these experiences disingenuous to me, so if I were to add those recorded details to whatever I’m writing, they’d feel manufactured rather than creative and a part of the story. Allowing these details to come back to me when the time is right helps with the natural flow of the narrative, the realism. But this might be the topic of a future post.
The bottom line is, not everyone has been a sailor. Nor has everyone been a carpenter. Not every reader will be able to personalize those experiences, my experiences. But, the heat of your hand being leached by a cold, brass door handle? That’s where writing becomes a shared experience between writer and readers. Those are the life experiences that truly add realism to narratives and allow the reader to take control of their mind’s eye.