A lot of people love the idea of the challenge of NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words in one month (and a month with only 30 days!) seems like a great achievement- and it is. It’s going to take a lot of persistence, caffeine and ideas to get to that goal. Fortunately, I’ve had a couple ideas floating around for a while; long enough that they are down on paper, plots are outlined, characters have some rough personalities mapped out, and now feel confident enough that I will be able to cruise across that 50,000 word finish line (and perhaps lap around again).
Not everyone comes into the game with this kind of prep work though. So what do you do in this situation? You could ask 100 different people, and you would get 100 different answers, but I think one thing is more important than anything else: Write what you know.
Now does this mean if you are 16 and in a suburban middle class high school you have to write a young adult novel about a middle class kid in suburban high school? Of course not. After all, if we all only ever wrote about our lives exactly as they are, there would be no great fiction. “Write What You Know” does mean however, that you maybe should think twice about choosing to write about an old man going through the difficulties of Alzheimer’s in Communist Russia. You need some frame of reference to work from, and writing about what you know will make you writing more three dimensional- you can give it more flavor, and create relatable, real characters. In acting this is called using ‘sense memory’ and is associated with method acting.
Now you might be thinking, ‘that’s all well and good for a realistic story, but I really want to write fantasy’. This method can work for Science Fiction or Fantasy as well, because after all, all stories start with some type of character or feeling. So start there, and let your imagination fill in the blanks.
Start by thinking of something that happened to you that gives you a strong memory. Perhaps you had a really great day with your family at an amusement park over the summer. You want to think of not just the sights, but how your other senses were effected. Was there music in the park? How did it smell that day? Was it bright and sunny, or cold and windy? Now take that memory and pull something from it. It could be the setting, or a person. Just choose something that made an impact on your memory. Now take that idea, and begin to ask yourself “what if” questions:
“What if there was a thunderstorm at the amusement park and the rollercoaster was hit by lighting?”
“What if that scary looking clown had a fear of clowns?”
“What if I ran into the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen over at the cotton candy stand, but then all of a sudden aliens came down from the sky and abducted her?”
At this point- let your imagination run wild. All ideas are good ideas. Brainstorm away and don’t edit yourself. Sooner than you think you will have a whole host of ideas that are rooted in something real for you.
Don’t forget to use your emotions as well! We have all felt anger, and sadness and happiness. Use those memories to fuel your characters and build a realistic story. This is writing what you know.
This is not to say that you won’t have to (or shouldn’t!) do research. There are always going to be things that you need to look up or reference to create a world that is full, rich and diverse. There is a difference though in researching to support your story, and having to research something that your story absolutely hinges on. Research is great, but you have to make sure you know enough to sound credible, and this can be difficult if your plot relies heavily on something that you have only a slight working knowledge of.
What experiences or feelings have you had that you use in your writing? Have you ever done something just so you could write about it? Agree with me? Disagree? I’d love to hear from you either way!