Laura Bowers recently posted the submission guidelines for guest contributions to the As the Eraser Burns blog. Specifically, she gave examples of topics we’d like to see. Several of her suggestions inspired me to make changes to my own upcoming blog posts. I’ve been thinking about where I live, now and previously, and how it has influenced my writing. For me, the reason to include personal elements, like location, in my work is to make the setting, the characters, and the plot more believable. Layering fictional details over non-fictional elements aids in the suspension of disbelief. Real life details make your writing better. Here’s how:
1. The places around you are rich with detail. They help to add a sense of place and time.
Today, I’m in my local Starbucks, cliche, but true. I’m surrounded by my dear friends and fellow writers. It’s raining, again, and it smells like coffee beans and rice crispy treats. Afro-latino music drifts from the overhead speakers and the taping of keyboard keys imparts a sense of unity and wellbeing. There’s no place I’d rather be.
As you’re reading this post, take a look around. Are you at home, in a coffee shop, in a studio, at your day job? Each of these places imparts a different vision. Is it noisy or quiet? Does it smell like freshly baked pastries or detergent from the laundry, or something else entirely? These are the types of real world details that lend a foundation that helps us build our fictional worlds. Fully realizing the basic structure, or environment, for our setting gives our characters a place to live in the pages.
2. The people around you offer a multitude of character details that may otherwise be elusive.
It might feel like cheating, and maybe it is, but look at the people around you. Really look. Can you put them in a book? Not them specifically, of course. You don’t want to get sued. But, you can certainly harvest the pertinent details (change the names and/or anything else that would tip people off ) and use them to build your own character.
For example, when my sister gets nervous, she bites her nails and shakes her leg up and down. Those types of emotional character traits can be applied to a wide range of characters. Look for these nuances of personality and then take these universal traits of the human condition and tweak them to make them fit your particular character.
Physical characteristics and behaviors can be stolen from people you know, people you see on the street, and even the internet. I am very visual person. Each of my novels starts with me searching online for images that I think match up with my characters, the setting, or specific moods I’m trying to create. I pin these images to boards on pinterest, print them out and tape them to the wall in my office, and add them to Scrivener files.
If you’ve been to any literary conferences, you’ve seen the t-shirts, tote bags, and coffee mugs that say, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.”
They exist for a reason.
3. What you have experienced physically can add realism to your work.
Running a marathon, being hungry, tired, injured, etc…are all part of what it means to be human. Extract the important aspects and use them to engage your reader. If readers can relate to your experiences, they will be more connected to your story. This authenticity of experience helps keep readers turning the pages.
I caution you, though, do not limit yourself. Take your work further by also using your imagination, your wishes, and dreams. Use your experience to go beyond yourself. Transcend your personal experience in a way that is believable by using these techniques for adding realism.
4. What you have experienced emotionally is critical to taking your readers on that emotional journey.
Human experience is a roller coaster of emotion and your story should be, too. We need to want to root for your protagonist and the way to encourage readers to do that is to rake your protagonist over very hot coals. I’m serious, torture him or her. Make us want to cheer him/her on. One way to do that is to show your character struggling. Show their trials, failures, and their last ditch efforts to finally succeed. Readers sign up for an emotionally transformative journey when they buy a book. Give them one.
Be brave. Connecting with the pain from your past is not an easy task, but connecting with your your personal tragedies is worth it when that connection transfers to readers and they love your characters because they can relate to them. Dredge up those past let downs, broken hearts, and broken homes.
5. Add more of what you know (and like or don’t like)
Now it’s time to take your experiences a little further. If you have a skill or hobby, like knitting, give it to one of your characters. The passion you feel for things you enjoy will shine through in your work.
On the flip side, you could make one of your characters (perhaps the villain) have a talent or belief that you vehemently despise. That emotion will also ring true with readers.
We all have life in common. The emotional and physical joys and triumphs are what bind us all together as human beings. Use your experiences to add depth, but don’t be afraid to go beyond them. In order to connect with people, we have to gain their trust with honesty and humanity.
Happy Writing and Illustrating.