A HERO'S SPARK: the final book in the Wicked Women series!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Curse you Winona Ryder!

Good morning!

Those who know me know that I have to have the TV on when I fall asleep. All you sleep experts, go ahead and scold me, but my brain simply will not shut down without the white noise of the TV going on. Since I don't have a cable connection in my bedroom, I use DVD movies to lull me into some sort of sleep.

The movies I use to fall asleep to are very specific. They have to have low key speech, no music, and I have to have seen them many times.

I have a list I won't bore you with, but one that's found its way into my DVD player a lot lately has been the Winona Ryder version of "Little Women." Granted, there's a bit of music playing at the beginning, but by the time I'm seriously drifting off, there's no music, it's just talking.It's perfect.

Except for one very small thing. There's a scene in Little Women where Ryder's character, Jo March, is reading her latest story to her sisters. It's a wild fantasy complete with a cliffhanger. After she reads the chapter, her sisters applaud and Beth, played by Claire Danes, says, "I never know what to write." To which Jo responds, "The first rule of writing is never write what you know."

This is the quote that rolls around and around and around in my brain all night long.

Every writer has taken at least one creative writing course. And in that course, every write has been told, "Write what you know." And every single writer has obediently bowed their heads, and given up writing for a good long time because really...who wants to read a story about a suburban woman raising kids and working a job she hates?

(Actually, I have that very story in my brain right now, but the suburban mom turns into a mass murderer, blaming her online persona for the deaths of those around her who piss her off. It's a dark, dark comedy really. Well, it makes me laugh.)

The problem with what Jo March says, never write what you know, is that every writer wants to believe that. We all want to write about some fantastic fantasy place we've never been. The problem is, the story doesn't sound good then. My daughter who at 13 has written more than I had at twice her age, has never been to Italy, but that's not stopping her from writing a story set in Italy. The difference is that she's doing exhaustive research on the country, the language, everything.

Obviously, when it comes to fiction, there's a huge element of "making it up." Believe me, I've met enough romance authors to know that not a single one of them knows a rakish duke personally. Research is the key to fiction, always. The best authors can create their own reality based on research. The best historical romances are written by the authors who know their history and are willing to create a story within that history.
So it's the eternal question. Do you write what you know, or what you make up? My mother would tell you that my best writing is when I just talk about my own life. Well, that may be amusing on a certain level, but that's not that writing that tugs at my heart. The stories about my childhood, about my foibles as a mother, those can make you laugh. But as a writer, I want more than that for myself and for my readers. I have a world of stories in my brain!

If you read "Dream in Color," there's no mistaking my thumbprint on everything. The story is set in the Upper Midwest, a part of the country I've lived in my whole life. Yes, I worked in one of those offices like Ramona does. Yes, I've spent hours online with fan groups, ignoring my own real life in the process. But then there's the fiction. I've never, regardless of what my family might say, gone on the road in search of the love of an aging rock star! (I did drive to Nashville a couple of years ago to see Rick Springfield, but I brought hubby along, so I don't think that counts!)

So curse you Winona Ryder! Curse you for telling me to never write what I know! Curse you for reminding me that it's a balancing act we writers have to do, the one between writing something so vivid the reader can touch and see it and writing something that whisks the reader to a foreign place and time. Curse you for making me ache to break the "write what you know" mantra!

Maybe I need to get a cable hook up in my bedroom. I don't have this kind of reaction to late night episodes of "Friends."

1 comment:

  1. I hope you're still checking your blog, Sarah J. Bradley. I so very much appreciated your post, though I can't agree with your anti-Winona conclusion. As far as I can tell, mainstream (high-sales') writers have been feeding off the idea of "writing what they don't know" for nearly a decade. How else can we explain the plethora of novels (movies and TV shows) about vampires, werewolfs, and zombies?

    (Re: your daughter: She certainly wrote about Italy as a young teen, but the question is whether she wrote about Italy in a fashion that would make sense to actual Italians. Did she, in other words, successfully "pull" a Henry James? I doubt it. (And no slight to her!) I also doubt that the past ten years of NYT bestsellers will stand the test of time...)