Write what you know. That’s the mantra for writers.
In my definition, it means to write about experience. You don’t have to be well-traveled, speak seven languages, or the master of the martial arts. To me, it’s more about emotion and feeling stemming from things that have happened to you. You may not think you’re life is interesting enough to spawn story ideas, but I disagree.
Have you ever been in love? Ever been in a fight? An argument? Have you ever witnessed an accident or someone getting hurt? Have you seen something that made you laugh hysterically or cry uncontrollably? I’m certain you answered “yes” to at least one of these questions. That means you have fuel for the creative fire.
The smallest experiences can be the catalyst for a larger story. I’ve often mined my personal experiences for stories. The trick is to use some event or experience as the starting point, but then fictionalize it. I have an unpublished story I completed last year that is a perfect example. I used some long-standing family strife to write a story about two siblings attending their father’s funeral. The characters are much different from the real people, and the events in the story are completely fictitious, but it’s still based on real experience. What I did was use the strife as a starting point, but instead of using actual family members I created four characters with their own personalities and had them work through the issues.
In a way, I guess you could say it was a form of therapy, as well. Of course, the story is dark and takes a turn, but that’s okay. The point here is that I used real events and turned them into fiction. I didn’t have to travel to some exotic locale, I didn’t have to do any research, and I didn’t have to try and come up with some fantastical premise. Oftentimes, the best plot devices are the simplest.
There’s another unpublished story I wrote years ago that also uses life experience as a starting point. My biological mother died when I was four years old. I don’t have any memory of her and it’s an event that’s stuck with me through my life. One afternoon I was sitting in a library at Florida State University, just doodling in my notebook while waiting for a friend, and I started thinking about her and about closure. I wondered what it would have been like if I’d had an opportunity to say goodbye to her, to have a solid memory to hold onto.
So I started drafting a story about a young boy who has lost his mother. He doesn’t understand what’s going on, why all these people are at his house, why they’re all crying and upset, so he goes out to the backyard to sit on his swing set. After a bit, a woman joins him, sitting on the swing next to him. He can’t quite see her face, but she seems familiar, and she talks to him about loss. It was a difficult story to write, but in the end I was happy with how it turned out. It’s also a good example of using personal experience – writing what I know – to create a piece of fiction.
You can use anything for a story. That trip you took to an amusement park with some friends, the brief encounter with the cute barista at the coffee shop, or that time your family was in a car accident. The event doesn’t necessarily have to be life-changing or traumatic, but if you have something like that happen in your life, use it. Otherwise, look for the small things. What about that time you went to the animal shelter to adopt a puppy or kitten? Or maybe that conversation you had with a school counselor about your future. You could even write about a trip to the bookstore.
Literally anything can be a prompt. It’s all about what you do with it, how creative you get with massaging it into something new, something interesting. As I like to say, you have to be honest in your writing, use real emotions, real reactions, but your settings and characters can be anything you want.
I think that writing from real life makes stories better because the author is more invested in it. Life can be stranger than fiction, so why not use it?