Writing What You Know

Pic obtained from Little Women fandom

One of my favourite novels from my childhood is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. One of the things the novel commented on was the problem many women authors faced in getting published. In the novel, the protagonist, Jo, writes fiction to help support her family, who had fallen on hard times. But she writes stories that are more fantastical than realistic.

Jo seems to be of the opinion that you shouldn’t write what you know. Yet Little Women, Alcott’s most successful book, is a semi-auto-biographical novel about growing up with her sisters. She takes many elements from her life with her family and includes them in her story. And in the story, Jo goes on to write a novel about her own life with her sisters.

There is nothing wrong with fantasy fiction. Or writing a character with a different background to the writer. As long as the author has done their research.

Writing from real life is, however, a good way to enrich a story. As an example, I’ve read a biography of a famous director/producer. This man had problems as a teenager and an incident turned his life around. If this hadn’t happened, he most likely would never have gone to film school. This incident, in turn, inspired a scene in one of his early movies.

In some of my own novels, I have taken incidents I have read about, or witnessed, and created a fictional scenario around them. I have also taken feelings, thoughts and emotions from my own life and included those in my stories.

Even when I am writing a character whose life is unfamiliar to me, I still prefer to inject a dose of reality. If the character I’m writing is a private investigator, I am still going to write about the difficulties of discovering information. My characters do not become instant experts, rock stars or whatever. It takes a lot of trial and error, and failure, to get there.

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