Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's OK because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, hiding your pitch, or chasing trends. This week's mistake is ignoring what you know.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Ignoring What You Know
When I was a writing student, I intentionally made sure never to set my stories in the place where I lived. I had this feeling that where I came from wasn’t interesting enough to inspire my fiction, and certainly not interesting enough to inspire readers. I’m from the Midwest, and I live in a city that is neither dormant nor bustling. I personally love it here, but why would anyone else care? What was so interesting to read about my midwestern childhood, the mid-level city I went to college, and that same city I chose to lay down my own roots?
In crafting stories for workshop, I started writing about places that had never been home to me, even some places I’d never visited. Often, I would keep the scale to one location that needed very little information to imagine—a single New York subway station, a park bench in California I found on Google maps, a grocery store in Florida where my grandparents lived—which often limited my stories to one moment. The story I wrote at the New York subway station found my main character as a fish out of water, having traveled there on a whim to escape his failing marriage. The story set at the California park bench was about a couple where one imagined his life after choosing to leave his partner the next morning. The Florida grocery store was about a woman planning an impromptu dinner party (inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway).
In essence, the setting was only there so my characters weren’t floating in midair. The world surrounding these stories was always shrouded in darkness, like a camera pulling back to show the dark soundstage around the action of the scene. Sometimes this hyperfocus on a moment works for a story, especially short stories; other times, it is limiting.
When I started drafting my first novel, I incorporated this practice into the process. But in my years of not studying setting, of not practicing writing place, my novels quickly lost momentum. I knew I needed to change my process. For me, that meant finally adding details from the world of my own life.
Writers choose settings they’ve never visited all the time—not to mention the fully fictional worlds of science fiction and fantasy fiction, let alone the world of the past in historical fiction, among other genres. Places we can’t return to, places that cannot exist. The problem wasn’t in not wanting to create new worlds but in not wanting to feel limited by the only world I knew.
This came from a place of misunderstanding what fiction can do and how to achieve it. Writing fiction does not mean every element is of a world that didn’t exist before you put pen to paper. Fiction is often a reflection of what is real, and what better way to convey that than with the very real things in your own life?
The moment I started incorporating details of my home, my town, my city, into my writing, the better my stories became. Writing about a place has truly become my very favorite part of the process, and there are many ways to write about your own place in your drafts.
One way is to focus on one aspect. I live in a four-seasons state. Sometimes, the only aspect of setting I incorporate is how I know autumn feels, or the difference between a hot summer day and a humid summer day.
Another way is to take something that is traditional to your hometown and make it a plot point. Where I live, we have an enormous three-day festival of light and art that attracts thousands and thousands of people to the downtown area. A story I recently wrote was set at this festival, and the details of all the art installations and light shows were a true treasure trove of inspiration.
Another way is to go all in. Don’t be afraid to surround your fiction with what you know, with the tangible reality you experience every day. This won’t suddenly turn your work into nonfiction or memoir—it simply makes your story more believable, gives your characters more depth and purpose, and makes your story stronger.
In my choice to ignore what I know, I stopped myself from years of potential writing. Incorporating my home into my writing has only deepened my love for this city and has added a layer of authenticity to my stories. When considering setting for your own stories, consider stepping outside and looking around.