You’re going to look at the title and the first few paragraphs and be confused, but stay with me. It will all make sense… in the end. 😉
Authors frequently say “write what you know,” but it doesn’t always mean what you think it does. You don’t have to be a spy to write a spy thriller, and you don’t have to know how to ride a horse to write about them (although you should ask an expert if you got everything right enough to not look stupid). What you should “know” is emotions and conflict and human behavior and all that good stuff. Fortunately, life usually gives you lots of material, as long as you pay attention.
Can’t you make it all up?
You can try, but your readers will probably notice. However, you can cheat a little. You don’t need to lose a boyfriend to write about losing a boyfriend. If you lose a friend, you ought to understand the loss of a relationship well enough to make your readers believe the emotions. You don’t have to understand wanting a bike more than anything in the world, you just have to understand wanting SOMETHING that badly.
What about the conflict in your story? Do you have to have an archenemy to write about one?
Nope. Remember, you’re allowed to cheat. What about that neighbor that always puts up fancier Christmas decorations, or the student across the aisle who got ONE measly point better than you on the final? Or what about the serial killer you read about, even though you never met him? (Whew!) You know, the one who reminded you of that weird relative who is certainly not a serial killer but has a really peculiar collection of something?
Even better, think about the conflict in your own life and find a way to apply it to your story. You can tweak it. You can bend it completely out of shape! But keep the emotion so your readers will feel it when they read.
Trust me, life will provide you with plenty of opportunities to collect conflict.
Can’t you have a story (or a life) without conflict?
Let me sit down for a minute. When I can stop laughing enough to catch my breath, we can talk about this.
No. Neither stories nor life are worth much without conflict. Think about it. If you’re reading a book and everything falls in the hero/heroine’s lap without any effort or opposition, is it an interesting story? Even more important, when you get to the end of the book and the happily-ever-after, do you think the character has earned it? Do you put it down and say, “that was great,” or do you slam the book shut because “nothing happened!” Why should the girl win the prince without even a bad date in the process? Why should the guy get his dream job without struggling through a degree (and the interview)?
In order for the happy ending to be believable and satisfying, it needs to come after a struggle to achieve. And the character at the end of the book is stronger and bigger and better because he/she has overcome challenges and grown to conquer.
And since we’re writing what we know, and because we want to earn our own satisfying happy ending, we need to remember that our lives will also be full of struggles. (Don’t go looking for trouble; trouble will find you just fine.) While frustrating, that’s not entirely a bad thing. (But take note of the sad feelings so you can write them later. If you aren’t a writer, take note anyway, so you’ll be ready to comfort your friend when he/she feels sad.)
So I have a challenge for you. This Thanksgiving, while you’re giving thanks for your blessings, take a moment to give thanks for the challenges that have—and will—shape you into a better person. It will all be worth it. In the end.
Happy writing, and good luck with your struggles,
Marty C. Lee