One truism in writing that’s often repeated is “write what you know.” The idea behind the advice is that our writing will be easier, more authentic, more knowledgeable, etc. if we’re intimately familiar with what we’re talking about.
And that’s a good point. But from another point of view, the advice can be downright harmful—at least for fiction writing.
That advice can make students or young writers freeze when writing fiction. They might look at their life, with their limited experiences, and assume they must not have anything to say.
Writers who have lived their whole lives in rural areas might not think themselves qualified to write stories set in cities (or vice versa). Writers might not want to tackle historical or futuristic stories. Writers might not write outside their racial, gender, nationality, sexuality, ability, religious, social class, etc. background, which would greatly limit diversity in stories.
In short, that advice can be taken to an extreme and severely limit the role of creativity, imagination, and research. We’ve discussed before the role research plays in writing about settings we’re not familiar with or characters different from ourselves, so there’s no reason to avoid writing about things we don’t know—yet. *smile*
That’s why I much prefer the advice:
Write what you want to learn about…
Today, my friend Susan Sipal (writing as S.P. Sipal) is here to share a story about being open to learning new things for our writing. I loved this story because her experience demonstrates how that openness can not only enrich our lives, but can also be fun.
She embodies the spirit of “writing what you want to learn about,” so please welcome S.P. Sipal! *smile*
The Journey of Discovery Through Writing
As authors, the stories we write are often crafted to take our reader on a journey. Perhaps we send our hero, and thus our reader, on an inward voyage of personal renewal or growth. Or, our heroine’s conflict may propel her on an outward trip of mythic adventure.
Either way, one of the best parts about writing, for me, is taking this journey along with my characters. I always learn and discover new things about my world and what I believe through the challenge of writing.
“Sometimes I know what I believe because of what I’ve written.”
— J.K. Rowling
Spiritual exploration has always fascinated me, and thus I probe at it in almost every story I write. I was a Religious Studies major in college and then did a semester at Duke Divinity School before going to work for Habitat for Humanity. Since school, I’ve delved deeply into ancient spiritual concepts, especially those involving the goddess. So, I know quite a bit about a wide variety of religious beliefs.
When it came to writing Southern Fried Wiccan, however, I faced new territory to explore. Which I loved. While I’d read several books on witchcraft, especially green and solitary magick, and performed a few rituals myself, I’d not yet met any practicing Wiccans. If I wanted my story to be authentic, I had to probe deeper.
I live in a small town. As in really small. As in, don’t go out to the PO or grocery store if you’re having a bad hair day…or bad clothes day…as you will always run into someone you know…who wants to talk. You would think that in a small, Southern town, it would be impossible to find any practicing Wiccans.
But I was wrong. I not only found Wiccans, I unearthed a coven.
Attending my first coven meeting was a bit nerve-wracking for me. First, I’m an introvert, so going anywhere new is always a challenge. Second, even though I’d read loads of books written by Wiccans, I still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I guess I felt as if I might enter a situation that would make me uncomfortable. And while I wasn’t exactly worried, I was nervous.
But as I drove down the gravely road through the woods, much like the road I live on, I assured myself that Witch Ellie had sounded perfectly lovely through the emails we exchanged. Then, as I parked in the field in front of her house where the coven was being held, and noted the chickens scurrying to the henhouse to roost just like at home and a cat sitting on an overturned garden bucket grooming, just like my cats, I breathed even easier.
When I rapped on the screen door, I was greeted with a chorus of “come on in, door’s open.” I stepped into a rustic and comfortable (just like at home) living room opening into a kitchen with about eight women sitting around a plank-wood table working some sort of craft. They all smiled and welcomed me in. And like anywhere else I went in town, I even knew a couple of the ladies…one even helped out with the soup kitchen at my church.
Aside from the discussion of the Wheel of the Year and the Goddess as Crone, this small, rural coven was like any other women’s circle I’d attended through bookclubs, at Mary Kay parties, even church. It was potluck, of course.
The food reflected a variety of cultures of the ladies present, and the tea was served in Mason jars. The craft was a Samhain decoration for home altars. We talked and told stories and laughed. And the evening ended with personal sharing and singing outside by a bonfire under a glistening night sky as we released our magical energy into the world. I won’t say that there was not a moment of discomfort for me that evening, but discomfort is often a door opening to growth.
My visit with the coven, and the numerous conversations I had with other Wiccans following, greatly informed not only my story but me as a person. I wanted to make sure that Southern Fried Wiccan portrayed an honest reflection of Wiccan beliefs, while still giving my character Mother Faith and the coven she leads its own particular tone based on her unique outlook.
As authors, opening ourselves up fully to where our stories take us, to me, is the mark of writing authentically. If we write only of what we already fully know, how can we bring the joy of discovery fresh to the page? So long as we remember to approach the unknown with a sense of respect and a desire to expand the boundaries of our minds.
When I choose my next story, it will always be with an eye as to what I don’t know and what journey I wish to explore now.
Born and raised in North Carolina, Susan Sipal had to travel halfway across the world and return home to embrace her father and grandfather’s penchant for telling a tall tale. After having lived with her husband in his homeland of Turkey for many years, she suddenly saw the world with new eyes and had to write about it.
Perhaps it was the emptiness of the Library of Celsus at Ephesus that cried out to be refilled, or the myths surrounding the ancient Temple of Artemis, but she’s been writing stories filled with myth and mystery ever since. She can’t wait to share Southern Fried Wiccan with readers.
About Southern Fried Wiccan:
Cilla Swaney is thrilled to return stateside, where she can hang up her military-brat boots for good. Finally, she’ll be free to explore her own interests—magick and Wicca. But when she arrives at her grandma’s farm, Cilla discovers that life in the South isn’t quite what she expected. At least while country hopping, she never had to drink G-ma’s crazy fermented concoctions, attend church youth group, make co-op deliveries…or share her locker with a snake-loving, fire-lighting, grimoire-stealing Goth girl…
…Who later invites her to a coven that Cilla’s not sure she has the guts to attend. But then Emilio, the dark-haired hottie from her charter school, shows up and awakens her inner goddess. Finally, Cilla starts believing in her ability to conjure magick. Until…
…All Hades breaks loose. A prank goes wrong during their high school production of Macbeth, and although it seems Emilio is to blame, Cilla and Goth may pay the price. Will Cilla be able to keep the boy, her coven, and the trust of her family? Or will this Southern Wiccan get battered and fried?
Thank you, Susan! Your experience exemplifies the idea that we relate to others by how we are alike. We are all human—with quirks, desires, flaws, habits, fears, etc. And that’s what makes us able to relate to all kinds of characters and situations.
Writing fiction requires us to sink into other characters’ perspectives, and sometimes those characters will be very different from us. (I’m not a serial killer, or male, or a unicorn shapeshifter, and I don’t want to be any of those things (okay, the unicorn one might be cool *grin*).) Yet our job as writers means that we have to bring these characters to life.
Likewise, readers often enjoy the “mental vacation” of going somewhere new and different in their minds, so we might write about settings and time periods different from our own. Rather than bemoan that fact and dread the thinking and research the story will require, we can embrace the challenge and enjoy learning new things. *smile*
Is writing about something you don’t know intimidating or a challenge to embrace? Have you heard the “write what you know” advice before? Do you think that’s good or bad advice? Why? Where has your research led you in your writing?
P.S. Today is also Susan’s birthday and the release day for Southern Fried Wiccan! Yay! Congrats and happy birthday, Susan!Pin It