How reality influences writing

I wrote my novel Mail Order Bride during the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic, and I challenge anyone to read it and not see the influence. One of the major threads that runs through the story is that the people live in a culture where physical contact is largely taboo, which is something that ultimately shapes the story, the characters, and the plot.

It also makes me think a lot about how our circumstances shape our writing. I’m a trans woman with pretty severe body dysmorphia. I tend to write lots of stories involving shape shifters. I’m pretty sure you can easily make the connection between those two. In another blog, I talk about writing characters with AI’s living in their heads. I’ve spent huge chunks of my life feeling alone and isolated. Another easy connection to make.

It calls to mind that old refrain, the most basic and useless piece of writing advice, “write what you know.” I say useless because it is easily the most misunderstood piece of advice given to writers. It’s why we have far, far too many literary novels about middle aged male writers who are working on their magnum opus. But at the same time, it can be one of the most useful pieces of advice. I just think the phrasing is wrong. I think it would be much, much better to say, “put yourself into your work.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re picturing reams and reams of Mary Sue fic. I get it. And while I honestly think Mary Sue actually has her place in fiction, be it literary or genre, that’s not really want I mean. When people say “write what you know” or when I say “put yourself into your work” what we mean is that you should use your own authentic experiences to shape your storytelling.

I’ve spent my whole life dealing with mental illness. I have post traumatic stress disorder, clinical depression, general anxiety disorder, and a few others. A lot of my characters tend to end up dealing with profound traumas in their own past, because it’s something I know. It’s a piece of myself that I can put into my work in what I hope is a compelling way.

At the same time, almost all my work is, to some extent or other, wish fulfillment. I have a rule with my writing. No angst without a happy ending. I put a lot of my own pain into my writing, but I also put a lot of my own dreams in there too. The desire to love and be loved in return. The desire to reach a place in life where you can be happy and at piece with yourself. All of those things are the end points for the characters in the stories I write. The classic Happily Ever After, or at the very least, Happy For Now ending.

For me, that is the reality that goes into my work. With Mail Order Bride, the loneliness that physical isolation brings with it was front and center in my mind when I constructed that world, so it because a part of the reality of that story. With almost all of my stories, characters who have dealt with pain and trauma are front and center, because I don’t know anyone who hasn’t dealt with those things in a very real and deep way. I take from the reality of my life and use it as the foundation of the fantasy worlds I create. That reality that gets baked in gives the worlds a feeling of live and verisimilitude that they wouldn’t have without it.

So, at the end of the day, it’s true. Write what you know, but in order to do that, you have to understand what you know. You have to look at yourself and find the sharp corners of your reality, and learn how to recreate them in your fiction. Put yourself into your work, but not your whole self all in one place. Paint the walls with your broken heart. Wax the floors with your disappointment. Hang your hopes and dreams on the walls like master pieces. Fill glasses with your guilty pleasures and wrap your characters up in your creature comforts like they were warm, fuzzy blankets. Use your reality as the foundations for the world you create, and it will have far more life and depth and texture than something created entirely out of thin air.

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