by M.J. Hearle
‘Write what you know,’ is one of those oft-repeated adages you hear when seeking advice about writing. For some reason, I never really took to it. I mean it sounds great and all in theory, but if I sat down to write what I know it would be limited to watching movies, playing guitar, a bit of travel and talking crap with my friends. Not exactly the stuff of resonant literature. I’m sure Tolkien didn’t know much about living in a hobbit hole or fighting orcs and goblins, yet he had no trouble writing four books about it.
After all, the story I was interested in writing, Winter’s Shadow, was about supernatural creatures descending upon a small town – something I surprisingly had never actually experienced. But that was part of the fun of it. The challenge of using my imagination to envision the impossible. If authors only wrote what they knew than bookstores would be cluttered with autobiographies and memoirs.
It wasn’t until I actually started writing that I realised I might have been a little hasty in dismissing this advice. Let me explain, Winter’s Shadow is more or less told entirely from the perspective of a seventeen year old girl. This may come as shock to you, Welcome Reader, (hopefully, not that much of a shock if you’ve seen the header at the top of the page) but I am not a girl. Not even close. I’m a thirty-one year old man. Or more accurately, a thirty-one year old boy, who does a fair impression of a man when the situation calls for it.
So, how was I going to write from the perspective of a teenage girl without coming across as disingenuous? My imagination simply wasn’t up to the task. As much as I tried to create a fully-realised, three-dimensional character in my head I couldn’t do it. Winter Adams remained thin and transparent – more of a caricature than a person.
Growing frustrated, I tried a different tactic. Yep, you guessed it – I decided to finally pay attention to the old adage I so scornfully referred to in the first paragraph. Instead of relying on my imagination, I used my personal experience as a jumping off point to write Winter. Don’t sit there frowning in skepticism Welcome Reader – sure, I’ve never been a slightly shy, introspective teenage girl, but I was at one point, a slightly shy, introspective teenage boy. Is there really that much of a difference between the two? Apart from the obvious physical ones. The only way to answer this question was to delve back into those painfully turbulent teenage years and try to dredge up as many memories as I could. This was not an entirely pleasant experience. Anyone who’s survived high school can probably guess why.
Upon performing this mildly astonishing feat of time travel, I was suddenly able to write more confidently about Winter, especially the feelings that were so crucial to the character and the story. Those horribly wonderful feelings only a teenager in the grips of their first real crush can identify with. I may never have been in love with an older man, but I’d certainly experienced my fair share of unrequited love with girls at my school. Revisiting my own self-doubt and anxiety opened a window into Winter’s character that had previously been closed.
Once I found this window I dived straight through it and discovered a funny thing: Winter and I weren’t that different from each other. At seventeen, both of us had experienced an unusual amount of grief in our lives, both of us loved music (especially classic rock’n’roll) and were interested in photography. Like Winter I grew up in Port Macquarie, a small coastal town not too far removed from Hagan’s Bluff. Both of us were a little ‘straighty one-eighty’ (wary of drugs and alcohol for those unfamiliar with this delightful term) and cheerfully oblivious to the latest fashion trends (still am).
There were still times I struggled with maintaining Winter’s voice (usually when I was writing the romantic scenes) but by infusing her with many of my own personal traits and giving her a background that was not entirely unlike my own, I grew to know her well enough. Well enough anyway, to write from her perspective without feeling like a hoax.
Maybe Tolkien didn’t know about hobbitses and magic rings but he probably knew about friendship and personal sacrifice and the threat of war (the guy lived through a couple after all), which are the elements of his work that really shine through. Even if your writing about strange and fantastic creatures (and is there any creature more strange and fantastic then a teenage girl?) you can still find ways to bring yourself into the story. Don’t make the mistake I did and and interpret the whole ‘write what you know’ adage literally. Try and understand what it really means.
Write from the heart.