Write What You Know . . . Then Surpass It

Places I Know)

Last Wednesday I posted the first half of my new story, Secrets in the Mountain, and it was a very easy piece for me to write. In it we had a man arriving at an office building, going up to his third floor cubicle, and pacing the halls with his headset during a meeting.

And all of this was biographical. During my previous job I worked in the exact building I described, with the same cubicle layout that I mentioned, and having the same sorts of conversation as the main character was having.

Not only this, but during that job I had the same lethargy that he had, the same longing for a life more meaningful. I have had mornings like him where the lights were off, hardly anyone had come into the office, and I had this inexplicable feeling that work didn’t matter because something important (I didn’t know what) was about to happen. In short, I have been that exact character in that exact place with those exact feelings.

Now at the end of the piece I started to build towards something more fantastic. The character’s premonition of important events coming starts to come true as a strange heat signature comes from the middle of a nearby mountain. In the next section the main character is going to walk to the glass wall of the building and watch as the heart of the mountain suddenly bursts apart!

And that will happen because that is exactly the fantasy I had one of those real-life days in that real-life office. I was longing for something mythic in my life, and as I stood at a glass wall staring at the nearby mountains, my brain imagined the whole thing exploding from a beam of light bursting through the rock.

That was a fun thought, and no sooner did I have it than I started to wonder, “well why would that happen? Is there some mythical being that was trapped in there? How would everyone in the building react? What would I do? What if I wasn’t afraid of it? What if I was somehow connected to it without even knowing it?”

And from that I started to piece together a story idea that I’d love to write out one day. A story that went from the mundane to the fantastic in a single, explosive moment, just as I now had a moment of pure creativity that randomly sprang from an ordinary day in my ordinary life.

Write What You Know)

Now I am far from the first author to take my real life, and from it concoct a story that blends authenticity with grandeur. Herman Melville is most famous for his epic novel Moby Dick, which follows a sailor on the Pequod, a whaling vessel whose captain is obsessed with catching and killing the eponymous whale.

Melville’s details of the whaling vessel are extremely precise. Take his description of the crow’s nest:

In shape, the Sleet’s crow’s-nest is something like a large tierce or pipe; it is open above, however, where it is furnished with a movable sidescreen to keep to windward of your head in a hard gale. Being fixed on the summit of the mast, you ascend into it through a little trap-hatch in the bottom. On the after side, or side next the stern of the ship, is a comfortable seat, with a locker underneath for umbrellas, comforters, and coats. In front is a leather rack, in which to keep your speaking trumpet, pipe, telescope, and other nautical conveniences.

As you might have guessed, Melville comes by this stunning level of detail because he is writing from his personal observations. He served as a sailor on both a merchant and a whaling vessel, and experienced firsthand the very settings that he describes.

But Moby Dick tells a remarkable and shocking story, and the sea voyages that Melville personally took did not culminate in his ship being destroyed by a massive, white whale and every crewmember drowned. Yes, some ships of the day were destroyed by whales, such as when the Essex was sunk in 1821, an incident which directly inspired Melville’s novel, but even real-life events like these were not as dramatic and mythical as those in Moby Dick. Melville had taken a foundation of authenticity, but then grafted an epic fantasy onto it. And because he was so intimately familiar with the craft of whale-hunting, he knew the perfect places that the fantastic could be welded onto the realistic for a seamless transition.

Even a narrative that leans even further into fantasy can still have its roots in the author’s personal experiences. Stephen King witnessed the death of a friend while still a young child. The event was so traumatic that he has been unable to recall the actual event, but it is a likely source of inspiration for his famous horror stories. Another real-life source of inspiration for King was his fight to regain sobriety after years of an alcohol and drug addiction. This is a common theme throughout his works, such as in Doctor Sleep, where the main character Danny Torrance must fight through the same alcoholism that plagued Stephen King…as well as psychic vampires!

Imagination Bolted Onto Reality)

In short, even the most fantastic of stories can have roots in the author’s reality. When I stared out of my office windows on a boring day, thinking to myself “imagine if something fantastic happened right now,” then I knew the exact right moment for the mundane to make a left turn into the amazing.

In reality, everyday life doesn’t suddenly burst into huge explosions, albino whales, or psychic vampires, but the wonderful thing about stories is that the fantastic absolutely can invade the mundane. In fact it must!

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