The most hated question in interviews and Q & As with authors is probably “Where do you get your ideas?” Because the answer is almost always either a contemptuous shrug or the clichéd “From the world I live in.”

It’s kind of funny, because the latter is what writers are taught early in their career with the tired adage, “Write what you know.”

I think there are times when writers mistake that advice for “Write about my life.” There was an older woman in one of my fiction courses who wrote a really personal story about the day her ex-husband was released from jail. It was a deeply moving story… or it would have been, if it had been properly constructed. But when criticized, the writer took it personally, going as far as quitting the class then and there.

I think the danger is, when you transcribe your personal life into a fictional setting, is that you want the details to match up with your own memory. This doesn’t always fit the story and making the concessions to make it fit damages your own memory of events. Save that memory for yourself. If it’s funny, save it for parties. If it’s tragic, save it for therapy. This is you we’re talking about here. Keep yourself whole and don’t exploit your life for a chapter in a book.

Fiction isn’t a diary. It can be hard to remove your personal stake from a piece of fiction during the editing process. When it comes time to “kill your darlings,” and those darlings are “factual events that happened to you,” you will find yourself in a bit of a quandary.

“But how do I write what I know?”

My advice (which is probably advice given to me that I am repurposing here for your pleasure) would be to start recording how you interface with the world around you–going back to the answer up top on “how I get my ideas.”

Your friend is talking. How are they talking? Are they sad, happy, neutral, bored? I’m cooking dinner. I feel ____ when I cook, because ____. This rock that I’m holding is crumbly. It reminds me of _____. It’s windy right now. People are walking ____ in reaction to it.

A personal example of this is when I wrote a scene in which the main character is gifted pickled herring. A friend who read the chapter’s only statement on the chapter was “How the #$%@ do you know what pickled herring is?”

And the answer to that is I had pickled herring on saltines with my grandmother years ago and it seemed like a thing that old neighbors would gladly gift someone, and the kind of gift that you’d be thankful for, but not particularly excited about.

I used a memory from my own life, took out the detail I wanted, figured out why I thought it worked and wove that into the story I was writing… without writing the scene between me and my grandma.

I’ll have more thoughts on this later (I have more thoughts on everything all the time).




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