Write what you know is one of the oldest writing “rules” tossed around. Also one of the most difficult to interpret into good storytelling. Take it too literally, and you’ll either have a flat story or get sued. Ignore it completely and the story will lack any sort of plausibility.
My favorite variation on this is Jesse Stern’s “Take an episode from real life and add a dead body.” I haven’t done that, though I might borrow somebody else’s dead body episode for this story. 🙂 But at its heart, the maxim speaks to the necessity of drawing from our own experiences, our own emotions. It’s one reason young writers are unusual — until we’ve done a certain amount of living, we don’t necessarily have the experience to create rich, complex characters and stories.
As I’ve been writing the past few days, though, I’ve found another aspect of truth in the saying, and that’s the sense of place. As the story unfolds, I find myself drawing upon years of growing up and living in small towns to create this small town. Drawing upon years of covering government, education and development to understand the feelings of those on all sides and how the decisions affect lives. Pulling bits and pieces from the memory blocks of people and dynamics and changes over time, how all of those affect each other and affect the community around them.
Exeter isn’t Franklin, or Columbia, or Staunton. And yet residents of all three will nod and recognize the truth in lines or scenes. The characters aren’t the people I grew up with, went to college with or see around town now. But people will recognize them as somebody who might live down the street or across town, as a teacher they knew or a friend of the family. It’s the alchemy of writing that lets us take everything we’ve seen, heard and done over the years and mix it up with some what-ifs to create a story that’s completely new and original, and yet familiar and authentic at the same time. Where we’ve been, what we’ve seen — it gives us the texture and background for the story we weave, to anchor it with a sense of place and time.