Sunday, December 13, 2009

Digging deep

When I was in high school I sang in a jazz choir (you might be thinking this sounds lame, but it was cool, trust me). It was a small choir so there were a lot of opportunities to sing solos. I sang things like Duke Ellington and Paul Francis Webster's, I Got it Bad (and That Ain't Good), and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's, Can't Help Lovin Dat Man. They were gorgeous, emotional songs, but they were kind of a stretch for a sixteen-year-old who'd never had a boyfriend, never been in love, and didn't use words like "ain't" or "dat" in regular conversation.

I strived to have an emotional connection with the audience (kind of like writing), so I worked hard to feel the words I sang. Since I couldn't draw on experiences from my own life I often borrowed emotion from books, movies, songs, or the lives of friends.

I find that I do the same thing when I write. We've all heard the advice to "write what you know," and I think it's good advice, but I think we can sometimes "know" without experiencing things first hand.

Most of the characters in one of my WIPs live lives that are nothing like what I know, but I've been able to draw on many other sources (books mostly, but also movies and even music) to make them feel real--at least to me.

Do you ever write what you don't know? How do you make the characters, setting, and plot feel authentic?

32 comments:

Marybeth Poppins said...

I love that you sang in choir! I sang in anywhere from 2 to 4 choirs at a time in high school. I love choir. Jazz choir sounds awesome!

I borrow thoughts from others. Ask around. Mostly its a research thing when I write what I don't know. Or I hope it's something I can make up :)

Julie said...

I was in choir, too! Great memories.

I've written a lot of things I don't consider things I 'know'. But you're right, it's easy to watch a movie, listen to a song, or read a book, and connect to the emotions involved, even if you can't relate to the exact experience.
And sometimes it's more fun to learn while you write!

Wendy said...

I just saw some amazing singers the other night! I play a few instruments but darned if I can sing, so I really admire people who can. I bet the choir was cool, I would have thought so! :)

I think that you can use your life experiences and things you know to make things you don't know more authentic. Plus you can certainly flesh out the bits you're having to research or make up with things you really do know to make it more authentic. I sure hope you can anyway, since it's what I do LOL!

L.T. Elliot said...

This is a concept that I use often but that I don't hear mentioned often. I think we can find, through emotion, experiences and authenticate them even when we have experienced them ourselves. I'm so glad you brought this up!

Renee Collins said...

I was in Theater in High School, and like you, I had to draw emotions for the parts that I had never actually had to deal with. It was a fun challenge.

I approach my writing much the same way as I did acting. In fact, sometimes when I'm writing an emotional scene, it's easier to act out the emotions first and then write them. (Does that sound silly? :) )

Kristi Faith said...

That's so cool, I can't carry a tune in a bucket. :0) Although I love music and I sing at the top of my lungs in the car. I bet I'm the only mother whose one year old shushed her for singing lullabyes. :( Totally broke my heart.

Anyway...I don't write what I know, but I feel it, I see it in others and I yearn to understand it, or show it to the rest of the world. I was never abused as a child, but my YA seems to come out with characters that begin as victims....

Bethany Mattingly said...

I sometimes write what I don't know, and like you, use other things so I can understand and portray it better. A lot of the time, I can take one moment or day in my life that I had a similar emotion. I may not have done the things my MC's do, but I can feel similar emotions and use those.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

I would love to be able to sing! So envious.
For now, I usually only write about things I've done or know about. I do struggle with getting the emotion out of a scene. Great post.

Jemi Fraser said...

I think you can know a lot of things without actual experience. Reading widely helps enormously as does observation. Great post!

Catherine Denton said...

Sometimes to write what I don't know, I study a person who has what I'm wanting to portray. I glean from them (i.e. ask lots of questions) to understand their perspective.

And Renee, I've done the acting-out thing too!

Cammie said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head re what we "know" ... the more I grow as a writer, the more I realize that there are certain universal human emotions we can tap into when writing our characters (whether that character be a modern woman in her 30s or an old man living 80 years ago.)

Paul Greci said...

This is an interesting topic. One of my books has a cast of at-risk characters, a man in his mid-eighties and a homeless man. I was never really at risk, and never homeless, but worked with lots of kids who were so I guess I know that world better than some.

I often take the "write what you know idea" and turn it into, "write what you want to know." Tapping into our own emotions is key. Combine that with research and the desire to explore parts of the human condition that are unfamilar and I think you can go anywhere.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I sang in choir for awhile, too! Singing is such a high.
The notion that we can only write what we know is overblown, I think. Wonderful books have been written about worlds that don't exist and never will, but they are presented as plausible and believable so we accept them. I hope horror writers don't chop people up to see what it's like, either.
My best guess is we tap into our experiences and emotions, use our imaginations and research tools and finally look around for experts for anything we are shaky about. I know I'm going to need one for my current book.

Terresa said...

I research, read as much as possible, listen to music to inspire me about writing of lands I've never visited, places I've never been. Above all, tapping into my emotions is key.

V. S said...

This is so very true Natalie. I agree 100%! Great post as always.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I try to draw on a similar experience if the scene calls for an emotional response. Good or bad, I think by now I've hit the entire emotional gamut so I can find some comparable experience.

And for other stuff I research. A lot.

Jody Hedlund said...

Oh, I write about what I don't know all of the time. Since I write historical there's no possible way to have experienced what life was like for my characters. But I do try to read diaries, biographies, and research until I finally begin to feel that I understand what life was like for my characters. And of course I borrow experiences that anyone, regardless of history, could have--like the loss of a spouse, or infertility, or struggle with self-image. Those are timeless struggles! Great question, Natalie!

Matthew Delman said...

I was a theater minor in college. During that time, I learned a heckuva lot about method acting and drawing on similar experiences.

By that I mean if your character should be angry, tap into something that made you angry. Is your character sad? Same thing.

As writers, our job is to create engaging stories. If I wrote only what I knew, then I wouldn't have a very big audience simply because much of what I know revolves around in-jokes and information quite a lot of people find boring.

Writing what you don't know is why research exists.

Mary said...

I'm writing in a time period and a culture that I know very little about, but it fascinates me. I've had to do a ton of research and basically delve into the culture, by reading books and watching movies that give me little clues how to make my story come to life. I'm enjoying it more than I thought I would.
Even though I haven't experienced this culture - I have experienced the emotions of my characters and I draw on that to give my characters their depth of feeling. Also like you I do feel like I've experienced certain things because I've read a book or watched a movie. There's a wealth of info out there now.

Patti said...

I started writing a book about my soccer team but it became too personal, so I agree with write what you know, but we are writers for a reason.

Jessica said...

Great questions! I try to make things authentic by drawing on reactions I've seen, or just imagining myself in the character's situation with the character's personality. One heroine was timid so I had to work on making her reactions toned down. But another has a temper so I tried to think about when I get angry (I don't have a big temper) and how it feels, etc.

Whether it comes off as authentic... I'm not sure. LOL But I try. :-)

Kelly Lyman said...

Good question! I try to imagine myself as my characters. What if I was really in this situation, how would I react? I also try and pay attention to the different people around me. Some of my characters have traits of some very real people in my life. That being said, I try to observe them during different situations to see how they respond. I'm not sure if I write the scenes in an authentic way, but I try!

Chuck Dilmore said...

wow - great question *and* replies!

i think that writing what we don't know
is good medicine... if we stumble
then our character fumbles - and
that's totally okay! it's real!

it's a sign of bravery.
it builds our compassion...
we haven't lived it, but we can relate, feel!

peace, Natalie~
Chuck

Linda Kage said...

I write about stuff I don't know all the time!! It's not as fun to write about stuff you DO know.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I have to write what I don't know. I know so little!

I bet your choir was fabulous.

Sande said...

Writing from what others have experienced is something that can be done but I find it does have a ceiling. We are limited to our perception and their expression. Our own experiences, I believe, give a far greater depth, insight and let the reader identify putting words to their feelings.

Don't mind jazz either btw; always wanted to play the sax ...

Erica said...

That's awesome. I was in show choir in high school- just like Glee- except it had been going for years and years before I got in :o) I love singing!

Absolutely, I write what I don't know. I write young adult paranormal. I know nothing of ghosts or going on adventures! I wish I would have had something that cool happen to me. Reality can be pretty boring, so I like to (like you) pull from music, movies and books. I can't imagine how boring my books would be if I wrote about my life- Gah

:O)

kathrynjankowski said...

Hey, I sang in choir, too! Still warble around the house (okay, mostly in the shower, but where else do you sound so good?)
;-)

As a fantasy writer, I can't claim to be writing what I "know", but every good fantasy is grounded in reality, so you take it from there and see what develops.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I think it would be very limiting if we had to remain within our own life experiences. We are capable of "knowing" in many ways. :-)

ElanaJ said...

I do write what I don't know. Because I think it's all in the emotion. If you're trying to write a character that's angry, we know what anger feels like. We know what makes us angry. If the person has lost someone (a mother), I can write that loss, even though I haven't lost my mother. I have experienced loss.

And, best of all, I can imagine how I would feel in that situation. So for me, it's all about finding the emotion you need, and using that.

Amy Tate said...

That's a trick. When I wrote my novel, I made the trip to Culpeper and walked the area where my characters spend most of their time...a battlefield. It helped to actually wade into the Rappahanack River and walk across the grounds near Brandy Station. I know that isn't always possible, but for me it really helped me connect with my story.

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Research and massaging what I do know. We can always build on basics and I think we have all lived at least the basics of each emotion. We just need to massage them for specific circumstances.