I’m one of countless writers who found his way thanks to this old standby, and having just published a book of stories set in small Southwestern Ontario towns a lot like the ones where I grew up, it’s been on my mind. My first post was about failing to nail a setting I didn’t know—maybe “Know what you write” is also good advice—and my latest concerned itself with the use of life experience in fiction.
For the beginning writer, I do think the advice is quite literal: practice writing by writing down something that actually happened. The first stories I wrote were actually part of a course called “Expressive Writing”, which maybe wasn’t even intended to generate fiction.
But say you’ve come that far and written a few things you know: your uncle’s hilarious divorce has given you a good story, that thing that happened to your friend that one time another, and now you’ve moved on to making stuff up.
There’s still a lot you’ll need to know.
You will be amazed at how much you do already know: how to make pancake batter, when the infield fly rule applies, when the Battle of Waterloo ended or how to correctly load a musket. And when you don’t know, if you’ve got friends with experience and it won’t mess them up to talk about it, it’s a great idea to ask. One thank-you in the acknowledgments section of my first book, Hamburger, is there because around the time that I was writing a scene in which a character has to jump into the Grand Canal, I found out my friend had first-hand experience: he had dropped the camera containing all the honeymoon pictures taken to that point on the trip and jumped in to save it. Most everyone knows not to swim in Venice because it’s filthy, dangerous and illegal—meaning my friend had knowledge that was specialized and hard to find! How could I not ask what the water was like!?
Let’s say, however, that you’re really proud of that that hilarious divorce story about your uncle and you want it to stand beside all of your fully fictional fiction. The story’s basically true with the names changed—“Good writers borrow, great writers steal”, T.S. Eliot did say—but you show it to your workshop group or your spouse and they give you back this critique: “I don’t understand why they’re getting divorced”.
What you’ve written can’t help but be informed by what you do know: you might have hinted at the cause in a way only you and people who personally know this couple would understand, or you might have hesitated to include something you do know because you don’t want to actually embarrass anyone. But when you go back to fine-tune that part of the story, maybe you find a question you can’t answer. I mean, does anyone really know why anyone else gets divorced? Each partner might tell you “the reason”, or they might independently tell you different reasons—and, “Why are you divorcing them?” and “Why are they divorcing you?” aren’t the same question; they might misunderstand each other’s reasons or, consciously or otherwise, misrepresent their own.
You might even put in the full, detailed truth as you know it and get back a variation on the same critique: “I don’t really buy the reason they’re getting divorced”. But when you’re writing fiction, “That’s what really happened” doesn’t indemnify you. The work of art must answer all its own questions. The “real” reason for the real divorce might have to be replaced with a more believable one—a more “real-feeling” one, you could say—even if that makes your uncle into the person in the Alice Munro anecdote, asking why you put in something true then went and told lies.
It’s here, however, that a story starts to grow. Whether you’re writing from your own life or whether you’ve made up something totally fictional and are following your plot outline, your job is to get from point to point smoothly and most importantly, believably. When you get to the parts you don’t actually know, you decide whether you can do without it, or source it from more reality (if you’re writing a historical novel, say—you probably shouldn’t call your uncle!), or whether you can make up something plausible.
The final story in Hamburger, “Three Deaths of James Arthur Doole”, is about a Second World War bomber crew that gets shot down. I did a good bit of research to understand the basic functioning of the Lancaster airplanes, borrowed mission tactics from an account of an actual mission, and even found a History Channel show that included some very useful first-person accounts of what the planes felt like when they took off, how they sounded and the like. And yet, I’m still frightened to think of an actual pilot reading that story. There must be an error in it somewhere. Given the subject matter, too, the historical aspect was daunting—there are plenty of Second World War buffs, many with personal connections, and I’m sure they’d be only too happy to correct any errors I made.
But somewhere in the process, you still have to get where you’re going, so you write what you don’t know—which might be better classified as what you don’t know you don’t know. It might be comparable to “affective memory” in acting: you might draw from an analogous incident and how it felt to you, or think back to how you or someone you know dealt with a feeling like one a character might be feeling in a given scene. In “Three Deaths”, it made a lot more sense to me to describe how a pilot trying to save his crew’s lives was feeling than it did to describe every detail of every button pushed or lever pulled to right the plane.
What you’re going to make up in these scenes is going to rely on what you’ve written so far: character, setting, lifelike detail. You’ll reread it and make what you can with what’s there, and that’s when you’ll start to see pieces coming together. You’ll start to like what you’ve made up more than what actually happened—it’s completely your own, after all!—and the made-up stuff will start to feel more real than the real, meaning you'll next have to go back to the real parts and work them out to properly support the made-up parts. You massage the truth to fit the lie.
How I know it’s worked for me is that now, eight or nine years and countless edits after first writing some of the stories in Nobody Looks That Young Here, I’ve lost the factual reality. Enough of the book is based on things I actually saw or did or heard about, but when I reread it now I struggle to remember which parts really happened and which were made up in the name of writing a better story. It doesn’t bother me, though, as the inverse would be worse. The facts should never, ever get in the way of the story.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Daniel Perry’s first short fiction collection, Hamburger, was published in 2016. His stories have been short-listed for the Carter V. Cooper Prize and appeared in publications in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and the Czech Republic. He has lived in Toronto since 2006. Nobody Looks That Young Here, a collection of linked stories, is his second book.