“Before you begin to write a sentence, imagine the scene you want to paint with your words. Imagine that you are the character and feel what the character feels. Smell what the character smells, and hear with that character’s ears. For an instant, before you begin to write, see and feel what you want the reader to see and feel.”
Last week, I had the pleasure of spending a couple days in New Jersey with my friend Christina, her husband Tom, and their beautiful daughter Jane. It’s hard to believe that sweet baby girl is almost ten months old – she was just born! Where does the time go? She is so full of personality now, so charming, vibrant, and eager to explore every single thing about her world. We read stories (because this honorary aunt couldn’t resist buying her some books!), played out in a fresh coating of snow, walked and walked and walked even more (seriously – how is she old enough now to be able to cruise around only holding on to someone’s hand?), and, my favorite part, shared lots of snuggles. Pretty sure my heart melted when she scooted over, cuddled against my chest, and gave me a kiss. Love, love, love that little honey.
Seeing how she’s blossomed made me think of the baby I wrote about in Dear Ellie. Not having a child of my own yet (oh, but the baby fever!), I did a lot of research for that book about the different milestones, characteristics, and behaviors of infants. It was such fun, and I genuinely loved writing about that little miss and her interactions with the cast of characters. But even as I worked, I couldn’t help wondering sometimes: is this true to form? Having never been in this situation myself, how can I really know how a new mom would react? How an infant would give cues and bond with her parents? It was a dichotomous journey that involved a balance between research, understanding my characters’ personalities, and imagining how/why they would act in certain ways. So whenever I get to spend time with sweet Jane, it’s always interesting to me to see how my fictional Ellie compares.
My conclusion? What every parent already knows: each baby is different. There are similarities, sure, but each little one is their own person. They discover things in their own way, in their own time, and that’s what makes it so special. No two parenting experiences will be the same. No two parenting experiences should be the same. The all-encompassing, high-flying love, though? How your heart opens up in ways you couldn’t understand before, how everything is brighter, deeper, fuller? That seems universal. Even without a baby of my own yet, I get that. All this has me wondering: do we write only what we know, what we’ve experienced and lived? Or do we delve into the unknown and craft stories about things that are unfamiliar, lives that aren’t yet ours?
Personally, I like to incorporate both. With my first manuscript, there was SO MUCH about my main character that I could relate to, and even though I hadn’t ever been in her particular circumstance, her motivations were completely understandable. With my second – and, subsequently, its two sequels – the premise was one I really couldn’t relate to at all, and the main character differed in many ways. Kaitlin can attest to how concerned I was at the outset, worried I wouldn’t be able to do justice to Sofie and her journey. Know what? Writing that book turned out to be one of the most amazing, inspiring experiences of my life. I will forever be grateful that I decided to take a leap of faith and go for it. It’s been more than a year and a half now – two finished manuscripts and one in-progress draft – and the thought of not having this cast of characters take up residence in my head is kinda unfathomable.
Is it helpful to write what we know? Sure. It brings an authenticity to the words, a feeling and emotion that’s inherent. But when we write about what we don’t know, what we want and hope – for our characters and maybe even for ourselves – there’s a magic in that, too. So who says it has to be one or the other? Why not a combination? As much fun as it is to tie-in real-life events in fiction writing, it’s equally enjoyable to create new ones. As much fun as it is for me to set three of my four manuscripts in Atlanta – a city I fell in love with after visiting in 2009 – it was equally enjoyable to make the island of Nantucket, where I’ve never been, an important part of the story, too. As much fun as it is to write what we know, it’s equally enjoyable to explore what our characters know, what they live and what they want. What their dreams, hopes, and ambitions are. And isn’t that what writing’s all about?
Writers – do you gravitate toward what you know, or do you explore different worlds? Readers – do you prefer books that take you on similar journeys to your own life, or ones that transport you somewhere else entirely?