I’ve heard this idea expressed by numerous people, critics and writers especially, and it makes sense. However, to understand what it means to “write what you know,” I have to look at my experiences and then examine what I write to see what the connection really is. And that brings up some interesting insights and viewpoints on writing.
What strikes me immediately when I look at my fiction and the places I’ve been that get into my stories is the way the places get transformed. They’re not used literally at all; that is, they’re not used as they are. The sense of place is moulded to the story. It’s not simply lifted from nature and plopped down wherever needed.
Let me give you an example from my first novel. I’d been writing for a couple of hours one morning and wanted a break, so I drove out of my temporary home in Vancouver, took Canada Way to a small street called Deer Lake Drive. Two blocks in, Deer Lake Park opens up and I pulled into the small parking lot. I walked to the water’s edge and sat, drinking in the solitude the lake and its surroundings presented. That sense of solitude seemed to permeate the very air and I luxuriated in it as I watched the Vancouver skyline hover over the lush green park. The quiet, the smell, the visual tranquility were astounding. It was suddenly broken by a pair of motorcyclists on large Harleys roaring into the lot.
At that time in my story I needed some place for Harry, my protagonist, to wait for Sabina as she did her cloud stuff. As I resumed writing, Deer Park fit the bill. I used it all, even the two Hell’s Angels, but saw everything through Harry’s mind.
The description was accurate enough, but it’s the pastoral nature of the setting that gets to him, not the solitude, not even the lake. He spent his time looking at the meadows on the far side and the apartment towers that framed the view. The park for Harry became a contrast to the business of the stroll and east-end traffic. I used it not only as somewhere for Harry to wait, but also as a juxtaposed setting to balance my story. It gave me a chance to emphasize that contrast, the wasteland of the city versus the gardenlike park, before the action of my story resumed. I’ll have more to write about that wasteland-garden pattern later.
Vision is a very strong element. It provides the story’s setting, but we must remember that the setting are tempered by whoever the narrator is since it’s seen through his or her eyes.