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gettingby
11-12-2015, 02:44 AM
I wonder about this when I am both reading and writing fiction. Even when something is straight out literary fiction, something in it is true and that's why we can relate. So, even if you write a fiction love story and it's not about you or anyone you know, because you have been in love you know what it's like. Could someone who has never been in love write a great love store? If you haven't experienced real grief, could you still write it? And I mean really write it, not that you can write anything you want crap. Do the best stories we can write as literary fiction authors come from something true within us?

Thinking like this could impact what I write. However, of course, I have other ideas that wouldn't fit into this. I just wonder if maybe I'm not the best person to tell those stories. Is having been through or experienced something, affect your writing? When you look at your best work, is it good because there is truth in it in some form?

Chris P
11-12-2015, 04:59 PM
I'm not sure, but I don't think Mary Shelley created a human-like being in a laboratory then chased it down to the arctic after it killed her new wife prior to writing Frankenstein.

It's not necessary to "write what you've experienced" in order to "write what you know." As long as you can avoid laughable errors you're fine, and you can probably avoid almost all of those with good research. Some years ago, I wrote a book (never published) that took place in part on the island of Zanzibar. A few yeas later, I actually got to go to Zanzibar and I had it dead on just from pictures on the internet, YouTube videos, and from reading travel blogs. The only error was a forgivable overestimation of how long it takes to tour Stone Town (and I had them on a bicycle tour, which would have been uncomfortable to do in the cramped and crowded Stone Town).

What experience gives me is the ability to add details I wouldn't have thought to include otherwise. I wrote a book (also unpublished) about three divorced guys. I was able to pull details from my own divorce, such as the first time I visited my ex at her new place, and saw a Christmas gift someone had given to me before my ex and I met. It hadn't occurred to me before then what that was like, and what someone in that situation would do about it.

lacygnette
11-12-2015, 06:43 PM
I read once it's not "write what you know" but "write what you know emotionally."

I think that speaks to your question about writing about love or grief. And Chris is right about research in placing a story. Of course, those little zingers, like the Christmas present, can really make a story jump off the page.

BTW, the book with the quote is Wired for Story. I can recommend it.

RKarina
11-12-2015, 08:24 PM
I would be inclined to agree with the "write what you know emotionally" to some degree. But I think you have to take a very loose interpretation of both "know" and "emotionally".

Do you have to have known romantic love to be able to write it?
I don't think so. But I do think you have to have known love, and desire, and friendship. (and frequently those who lack the experience of romantic love wind up missing the finer nuances of the experience)
Do you have to have lost a spouse to be able to write about it?
No. But I believe you need to understand grief. (ditto about those nuances)

I believe writing is much like acting in that area.
An actor does not need to be a psychopathic serial killer in order to play one.
I certainly hope a writer does not need to have experienced the desire to kill (or acted on that desire) to write about it.
Both writer and actor will channel from something else.
They will take what they know (emotion and experience - the "truth" you speak of) and combine it with what they learn (research - the "made up" parts) to produce a believable, and relatable, story or character.

gettingby
11-14-2015, 01:06 AM
So, if I haven't ever been in war, can I write a novel about war? I can do all the research in the world, but none of it compares to actually having been in combat. This sort of thing just has me thinking about the best stories I can write and even what I should write. Have any of you had thoughts like that?

Lillith1991
11-14-2015, 02:16 AM
So, if I haven't ever been in war, can I write a novel about war? I can do all the research in the world, but none of it compares to actually having been in combat. This sort of thing just has me thinking about the best stories I can write and even what I should write. Have any of you had thoughts like that?

In the case of something like war, say the story is set during Desert Storm or the last War in Iraq, you should be reading accounts of the people who experienced it and actually asking living people what it was like if possible.

gettingby
11-14-2015, 02:23 AM
In the case of something like war, say the story is set during Desert Storm or the last War in Iraq, you should be reading accounts of the people who experienced it and actually asking living people what it was like if possible.

Or maybe I shouldn't be writing a novel about it. I don't know. I'm not looking for how to write about things I haven't experienced but whether or not I should.

Lillith1991
11-14-2015, 03:35 AM
Or maybe I shouldn't be writing a novel about it. I don't know. I'm not looking for how to write about things I haven't experienced but whether or not I should.

That's not something someone could tell you. I look at it this way. I have epilepsy, but I have a particular type of epilepsy. If I was writing a story about someone with epilepsy that has an effect on the pain center of the brain, I would only know part of what that person feels like because we have part of our shared disorder in common. Is it ok that I do this? I think it is, I'm using my own experience and research to supplement that experience. Just like this hypothetical person would have to do in order to write about someone with temporal lobe epilepsy, which is my disorder. Someone who has dealt with that form of epilepsy day to day is always going to be more equipped than me to handle the subject and that's ok. My efforts aren't diminished nor my truths less true.

Roxxsmom
11-14-2015, 03:52 AM
So, if I haven't ever been in war, can I write a novel about war? I can do all the research in the world, but none of it compares to actually having been in combat. This sort of thing just has me thinking about the best stories I can write and even what I should write. Have any of you had thoughts like that?

People do it all the time. Stephen Crane (wrote the Red Badge of Courage) was born six years after the Civil War ended, and Hemingway's combat experience was actually very limited. Whether you should? That's your call. But consider that writers of historical fiction have to write about eras they never lived in and experiences they can only research and imagine. If I'm writing about the black death, I probably haven't had the experience of surviving a plague outbreak or losing family members to the disease (let alone doing so as a medieval person).

Of course, we can also argue about whether or not writing about something where there are still living people who've had the experience is on the same moral ground as writing about something no one remembers firsthand. I might be able to research and write a story from the pov of a character with AIDS, but if I haven't experienced the disease myself, or at least been very close to someone who has fought the disease, am I the best person to tell that story?

I think it depends.

Consider that war novels can focus on many different things related to the experience of living through war, from the combat soldier in the trenches to a civilian living in a country that's at war. A war story can be more panoramic and event driven or it can be deeply immersed in the head of a particular character who is experiencing one aspect of being at war or in combat (or being a survivor of such).

Who is your target audience? It may be the case that a combat veteran is the best person to write to a story that speaks to other combat veterans or gets a certain aspect of the experience across to people who aren't. But that doesn't mean a person who hasn't had that exact experience couldn't write a very compelling and respectful story that has a slightly different focus.

Also consider that unless your characters are all based on you and your personal experience (or your stories are autobiographical), you'll always rely on research, imagination and empathy as a storyteller.

Ravioli
11-14-2015, 06:26 AM
Well, it is important to me. For one, because I think a lot of the things that happened to me, make for good stories.
But also because going through something myself allows me to describe what an event does to a character not only in terms of external action, but also the internal impact and perception. You simply know what it feels, how it impresses you, how you'd express it... And of course, you have the practical/factual experience/knowledge. So personally, yeah, I like to draw on things I know first hand what they (may) feel like.

HoosierJoe
04-06-2016, 06:04 AM
I get asked "did something like that happen to you" on occasion when someone reads one of my stories. I may use pieces of a conversation or traits / mannerisms I have seen in myself or others from time to time. I may even retell something that actually happened in a way, although when I get through with it, it only resembles the real thing.

But to answer the thread: I believe that you can totally make things up. My stories are right out of my head (or the bad ones come right out of the other end).

chompers
04-06-2016, 07:08 AM
You can still do it, but it's just that much harder, especially the emotional aspect of going through said experiences. But there are universal emotions, regardless of specific events, that will resonate with all readers. Say, for example, seeing all your loved ones succumb to the Black Plague. Even though you don't know what it's like to live through the Black Plague, you can apply your personal experiences with death and grief. The rest you fill in with research, research, research. And use beta readers who can confirm whether something is off or not, whether through personal experience or through their expertise in the field.

kuwisdelu
04-06-2016, 07:13 AM
Pretty much everything I write is either something I've experienced or a metaphor for something I've experienced.

Which isn't to say I don't write some things that I haven't experienced.

Like right now, I'm trying to research wheelchair users for a character in a novel I'm thinking of starting.

chompers
04-06-2016, 07:23 AM
Pretty much everything I write is either something I've experienced or a metaphor for something I've experienced.

Which isn't to say I don't write some things that I haven't experienced.

Like right now, I'm trying to research wheelchair users for a character in a novel I'm thinking of starting.

If possible, borrow a wheelchair and try to get around in it. When I was in school, one of my teachers borrowed a bunch of wheelchairs from the nursing department so that we could all experience what it was like so we could understand it better for when we design building elements to meet code (architectural). It was eye opening. Not only was it extremely difficult to navigate (and this was on the ramps!), but people treated you differently.

leifwright
04-06-2016, 07:25 AM
I wonder about this when I am both reading and writing fiction. Even when something is straight out literary fiction, something in it is true and that's why we can relate. So, even if you write a fiction love story and it's not about you or anyone you know, because you have been in love you know what it's like. Could someone who has never been in love write a great love store? If you haven't experienced real grief, could you still write it? And I mean really write it, not that you can write anything you want crap. Do the best stories we can write as literary fiction authors come from something true within us?

Thinking like this could impact what I write. However, of course, I have other ideas that wouldn't fit into this. I just wonder if maybe I'm not the best person to tell those stories. Is having been through or experienced something, affect your writing? When you look at your best work, is it good because there is truth in it in some form?

It's not in any way important.

If you have a subject about which you know nothing, do research. Talk to people in that situation. Talk to those around them. Read books about it. But do you have to have been the victim of a serial killer to write about one? No.

cornflake
04-06-2016, 10:26 AM
Even if you have been in a situation, you've only been in it for you. Just because you're married doesn't mean you know anything about marriages besides yours. Someone could have been in a war and had an entirely different experience from the next 50 people you ask.

Roxxsmom
04-06-2016, 10:52 AM
To answer the question in the thread title directly, not at all. My characters are dealing with issues like dark magic addiction, assassination attempts, being locked in dungeons, going on diplomatic missions to foreign courts, living in a non-industrialized society, and being attacked by cudgel-and-flintlock- wielding thugs, just to name a few differences between their experiences and mine.

However, I do have experience with the emotions I'm projecting onto them in these various situations--love, fear, passion, anger, frustration, confusion, betrayal, feeling like one is in over one's head, feeling like a bit of an imposter etc. I research things I don't know much about, and I try to think how a person's personal circumstances and experience might alter the way they perceive and deal with these emotions.

Jamesaritchie
04-21-2016, 02:13 AM
You do not need to experience something to write about it, but to write well about it, you need some kind of experience that can let you relate to the subject. Life experience matters. People experience matters. Living through something yourself is a massive advantage.

If your experience doesn't cut it, then you use the experience of those who actually did go through it. This applies to creating a monster, fighting zombies, or landing on another planet. You must have the emotional experience. If you've never been terrified, talking to those who have been is not going to help much. It's like a virgin trying to write about sex. More, it's like a virgin who has never masturbated trying to write about sex.

Fortunately, we all know enough people, and know them well enough, to write well about people. And most of us have some kind of experience that crosses over to cover the emotional experience we want to write about, as long as we also listen to those who have been through it, and add their experience to our own.

Fortunately again, if you don't want to write about things you haven't experienced, you don't need to do so. As Flannery O'Connor said, "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days."

It's true. Absolutely true.

But I'm still a believer in living life in such a way that I don't need the experience of others. I'm not saying we all have to get shot, or we all have to kill come one, or we all have to be in a car accident to write about them, though it certainly helps. I am saying it's good when we put ourselves in situations where each of these things becomes a real possibility.