I was raised in a large industrial city in England. When I was about twelve years old I sent off my first story to a magazine publisher. It was full of conflict, about creatures trying to exist in the Amazon rainforest. Much later, understanding a bit about marketing, I realized the magazine published only romances. The best ‘creatures in the Amazon’ story in the whole world wouldn’t have made it on to their pages.
Someone on their staff, though, was kind enough to send me an encouraging note along with the rejection. Of course it contained the sentence “Try writing what you know.” It not only encouraged me to keep writing, it made me excel in biology classes as I tried to get to know Amazon creatures better.
Many years later I visited the Amazon and saw – and in a few cases touched – tarantulas, anacondas, raucous birds, tiny monkeys and even a cayman (seen at night by flashlight). Let me repeat – I SAW them. There’s no way I got to know them. not like I know people.
People are what or who we know. Most of us are surrounded by them, all shapes and sizes and all with unique emotional dimensions. Each one comes with strengths, weaknesses, flashpoints, hopes, hostilities, beliefs and viewpoints. No matter where you live the people you know carry these personal individual bundles around with them, just as we all do.
Once in a while you can glimpse the reason why they act and react the way they do. Mostly, though, it’s the writer within us that compels us to try to connect the seemingly unconnected dots. We look at the little behavioral clues they leave and try to puzzle out why, in this case, A led to M instead of to B. What if some pressure was being applied that we don’t know about? What if…
And because we, as writers, spend so much time with people and thinking about possible reasons for their behavior, we start to know them and understand them better. So when we write about people we are writing about what we know. Probably more than others we begin to understand motives behind actions. We see the telltale tiny signs and we empathize with their emotions, remembering a time when we ourselves felt so angry, so sad or so distraught that we too might have…
The more we learn about people, the more we figure them out, the more our readers will connect with our characters and enjoy our writing. They will feel the reality underlying our fiction.
We will be writing about what we know, what we understand, what we have deep feeling for. And our writing will be good.