Perhaps you’ve heard the old writing mantra: “Write what you know.” Today, agents and editors are seeking “authentic” stories, which sounds a lot like an updated version of “write what you know.” Sounds limiting, doesn’t it?
After all, you may have lived in one place your whole life and, let’s face it, nothing terribly earth-shaking happened to you there. Oh, but think again. You know far more than you think you do, and if you don’t know it now, you will. Think in terms of character, setting, and plot, the basics for any work of fiction. Your readers are depending on you to “know” what you’re writing about.
Setting includes both time and place. I've written middle-grade historical novels that take place during the Boston Massacre, the Revolutionary War, and World War II. One of my books is set on the Kentucky frontier in 1776, and a four-book series takes place in the Holy Land in the early days of the first century C.E. As I tell kids during school visits, I may be old, but not THAT old.
And yet, I can write about characters living far different lives than my own. After all, novelists use their imagination in creating characters, establishing settings, and developing the plot. Using "what you know"—and doing research to find out what you don't—makes the characters, setting, and plot ring with authenticity.
Is this easy? No. Is it possible? Yes!
Creating Authentic Characters
First, and most importantly, you know what it is to be human. You’ve laughed and cried. You’ve loved some people, and probably hated others—or at least disliked them. You’ve been proud, jealous, and hopelessly confused. Use these emotions and more to make your characters believable.
I had no “authentic” experience with people living 2,000 years ago, but I know that people living then experienced joy and sadness, success and disappointment, confidence and fear, just as I do. They had distinct opinions about their families, their neighbors, their community leaders, and the government, just as I do. That's no small thing. No matter where or when we live, we humans share these common emotions, and building an emotional connection between your characters and your readers is essential.
Children often have even stronger emotional responses than we adults do. They may never have experienced a particular situation before, so facing it is shocking and creates life-changing insights. For example, in my latest novel, A Kidnapping in Kentucky, 1776, 13-year-old Jemima, the daughter of Daniel Boone, is kidnapped. She may never go home again. She is overwhelmed by despair as she thinks about family, and only then does she understand the depth of her love for them. Readers can relate directly to Jemima's experience, asking themselves, what if that happened to me?
There is lots of talk today about "own voices." But our focus should be on "authentic voices." For example, I’ve written in the voice of a 12-year-old boy facing a disastrous flood, an American spy during the Revolutionary War, and a British soldier at the Boston Massacre. I’m not a boy nor a spy, and I was never a British soldier, but these characters became real to me and to my readers because I imagined my characters' emotional responses to these situations.
Use what you know—your own emotions—and show your characters feelings through body language. Do they step away from danger, wring their hands, stammer? Be an observer. Notice how people behave. And if you’re still unsure how to show a particular emotion in a convincing way, check out The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It's filled with helpful ideas.
Building a Believable Setting
If you write fantasy or science fiction, then you are involved in world building. The world you build must seem believable, and you’ll provide details to make it so. But if you are writing realistic or historical fiction, then you should either write about an area you know well or do research.
Fiction is not all imagination. Good research will help you avoid creating unrealistic settings. I recall reading a novel set in my hometown, but the details were all wrong. I stopped reading and other readers who know the area probably did likewise. People love to read about familiar settings, but only if the area is accurately depicted.
If possible, visit the novel's setting. I stood on the bank of the Kentucky River and toured the rebuilt Fort Boonesborough when writing A Kidnapping in Kentucky, 1776. Or course, an actual visit is not always possible. But you can write about faraway places, places you’ve never been.
As much as I’d love to time travel, I can only do it in my imagination and by doing careful research. There is no shortage of books, paintings, and videos that allow us to visit other places virtually. Online image galleries and travel sites provide easy access that help us “see” and, therefore, describe settings that may not be familiar.
Don’t stop there. Every locale has unique customs, expressions, favorite foods, etc. Adding such details gives a novel authenticity. Research pays off. It’s not just a matter of “writing what you know,” but also of “knowing what it is you write.” Good research makes that possible.
Plunging Into Plot
Maybe you’ve never been in a train wreck or run away from home, but that needn’t keep you from using events like these in your plot. You know what it is to struggle with a problem and to try various solutions until you find the answer. That’s plot. Plunge your protagonist into trouble. Let it become worse and worse, and then let your protagonist find a solution that is believable.
Your research may involve interviewing people who have faced situations similar to the ones in your story. Most people are eager to share their experiences. Let their knowledge guide you. In writing about a U.S. soldier fighting at Anzio during World War II, I asked an elderly veteran who’d been there to read the piece over. He provided helpful suggestions, especially about the words soldiers used to describe their weapons. It wasn’t that World War II veterans would be reading my book, it was that I wanted to get it right for my 10-year-old readers.
Know the Ending
One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever heard was “know the ending before you begin writing and aim for it.” It may be a stretch to say that what you know is how the story ends, but that’s a vital element for me. You are writing what you know in terms of characters and setting, and you’re writing toward what you know that your readers don’t: how the story ends.
Readers want to enter a world that may be unfamiliar but makes sense. They want to spend their time with believable characters who live in a place they can picture. They want realistic problems and an ending that is both satisfying and hopeful. Writing for middle-grade readers is a challenge. They absorb books in a way that adults seldom do. Believable characters who struggle and overcome difficult situations give young readers strength to do the same.