|Sierra Nevada by Albert Bierstadt, circa 1871|
“Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect!”
I would add, and make it real – the world of the story – in this way, you can circle back to the idea of “writing what you know.”
Let me put it another way. I have a two-word motto taped to my laptop:
I love to travel, but at this stage of my life, I don’t get to do it as much as I like and creating stories is a way to visit undiscovered territories without leaving my home, abandoning my children, or losing my job.
You can’t tell a story from the outside in. You have to travel to it and tell it from the inside. It is amazing what you can build inside your head, lands infinitely vast or tiny as a snuffbox. It’s a magic bounded only by your imagination and daring.
When we speak of some aspect of storytelling as magical, it gives the impression of being bestowed. Presto! Upon the writer, who sits and scribbles in an inspired frenzy. Nope. Going there is a skill that must be honed and nurtured through the disciplined practice of writing. Writing every day.
Get inside your characters' heads. Inhabit their bodies; break into a sweat when they’re in a tight spot, heave a sigh when they escape, shed a tear. Get to know your characters by seeing the world of the story through their eyes.
Here’s more magic. Every one of us is a vast, undiscovered country. We never truly know our loved ones, our parents and children; they constantly delight and surprise us, disappoint us or break our hearts. They are driven by motivations so personal and complex that we can only comprehend them dimly as if through a clouded lens.
Even my own views and opinions of the world are constantly evolving. There are the things that I will always believe, the compass that I steer by. But the things that were important to me when I was in my teens, my 20s, my 30s, they are different than the things I value and enjoy now. Still, I have the memory of my earlier selves to tap into when I create a new character.
I’ve gotten to the point in my abilities where I can tell when I’m coming at a story from the outside. Often it’s because my progress begins to stutter. Walking becomes difficult, the way unclear. Instead of experiencing the story, I begin to feel like a puppet master moving characters around a lifeless set. All is not lost, I just have to do a little journal work to get inside the character’s head so that together we can climb inside the story. I’ve found that getting inside the story can happen in the first draft, but it can also happen in revision. I don’t think it matters when, but at some point, for a story to come alive, I have to climb inside.
That’s all I’ve got for today. I’m off to another undiscovered country. I’ll see you on the other side.