Marcella Kampman

Author of Inanna, Goddess of Love: Great Myths and Legends from Sumer

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Write What You Know & Know What You Write

Posted by marcellakampman on May 8, 2012 at 2:15 PM

They say there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what those rules are. Be that as it may I just so happen to have my own three rules, which I intend to share with you at the end of this article.


In the meantime, let’s explore one of the most common pieces of advice that’s practically made it to rule level, and which is given to all writers, aspiring or otherwise.


Write what you know.


That’s great advice if you’re planning on writing your memoirs. One would hope that you know yourself well enough to be able to write about yourself. But maybe writing your memoirs wasn’t quite what you had in mind. So, instead of writing about yourself let’s say you were planning on writing about an axe murderer, and you’ve never murdered anyone. Does that mean you have to become one, or know someone who is to make your story sound believable? I should hope not.


Or what if you want to write about a pilot flying a small engine plane through the eye of a storm? This scene actually takes place in my novel, Promise Me. I am not a pilot, nor have I ever flown in a small engine plane. Actual pilots have read the flying passages in my book and have commented to me on how believable my scenes read. With, of course, a bit of artistic license so that the story still reads smoothly and is presented in an interesting manner.


So how did I achieve this level of believability? The answer is simple.


Know what you write.


In order for me to be able to write the flight scenes down in a believable manner, and for the pilot to sound plausible, I had to do a lot of research.


I began with the Internet. I wasn’t sure what kind of small plane I wanted my pilot to be flying, so I studied and compared all the popular small engine planes available. I looked up flying schools to see which planes they mainly used. Once I’d narrowed my search and picked my airplane of choice, I had to learn how to fly the thing.


As an armchair, or rather computer chair pilot, my next stop was the library. Librarians have a wealth of info at their fingertips. From them I learned that I could access books from various archives and museums. I was allowed to go into these facilities, browse through their various collections of books on planes and flying, talk to the archivists, and then return to my library and place the request for the books that interested me. I found some outstanding how-to books on flying a small engine plane.


The next stop was the museum. Right here in our city we just happen to have an Aviation Museum, and I learned that people who work in museums absolutely love to talk about what interests them. And those who work in an aviation museum just so happen to know all kinds of interesting things about planes. Some were even pilots themselves and shared some of their more memorable flying adventures with me. I got to know a lot of people who worked down there quite well. I met this one fellow who used to own a Cessna Centurion, my airplane of choice, and he would take me on the plane’s mock-up that they had there on display at the museum. As my scene began to shape up more clearly in my mind I would brainstorm with him how to make the scene more believable.


By this time my story and pilot character were beginning to take shape. I decided she had to have an emergency landing in an airfield similar to the one that just so happens to be not so far from where I live. So I introduced myself to the airfield controller, learned all the jargon, especially for an emergency kind of landing, and bounced ideas off of him. He was immensely helpful and even managed to direct my story along a very exciting path of what ifs and how tos. He introduced me to the local flight instructor as well as some other local pilots who berthed their planes there. They would let me clamber about their planes so I could get a sense of size and space. I had thought of hiring one of them to take me up, but as I get terribly motion sick I didn’t think I’d benefit much from that course of action.


Naturally, my research would not be complete without talking to some of these actual pilots. I sat down with a couple and got the real inside scoop on how it felt to fly such a small airplane. How the plane would respond, how the pilot would react. It also helped that a good friend of mine was a pilot in the air force. He flew Challenger Jets, but he had also been a flight instructor at one time. Several times, over the writing and endless re-writing of the airplane scenes he would sit down with me and hammer out the details to make it all sound as real as I could make it. He would let me know if my ideas would work, or he’d help me figure out what to do to make them work, or he’d even suggest something entirely different that sounded quite interesting and I would then find a way of building his suggestion into a scene.


All of this research took me months to collect and turn into something usable. Remember, I knew nothing about airplanes or flying when I first began this project. But the more I studied the more I learned which led me to realize that I was beginning to know what I was writing about.


I don’t know how many times I re-wrote those airplane scenes, but I do know that by the end of it I felt that I could fly an airplane. Certainly my pilot character could, and I think she did a darn good job landing them safely through that wicked storm. That’s when I knew that I had brought those seemingly impossible scenes to life.


Now, in a little aside here, the scenes are not written exactly the way they would have happened in real life. That’s where artistic license comes in. To have written all that research into the book in a letter perfect manner of exactly how and when such-and-such a thing would have happened would have made it lose its story momentum. For instance, I give a feel for the conversation with the tower by using static only a couple of times and by having them speak in air-talk jargon only a few times, but then I go over to a more conversational mode to continue on with the story. I felt it would be too clunky to keep up the static and breaks and pauses and roger this and over-and-out that for too long.


In this kind of a novel the setting is only a backdrop, I didn’t want the reader to be so aware of all the external events that they lost sight of the characters and their feelings while it was all happening. My use of artistic license allowed me to give the airplane scenes balance and immediacy.


By the time I began writing my novel in earnest, I was confidant that I could write what I knew and I knew what I was writing about.


Remember at the beginning of the article when I mentioned that I was going to share with you my three rules of writing? Well, here they are.


1. The first rule is read, read, read. Read anything and everything, but most of all read in the genre of books that you yourself want to write in. You can’t become a writer if you’re not first a reader.


2. The second rule is write, write, write. Write first and foremost for yourself. Write what you yourself are passionately interested in. Don’t write what you think the publishers are looking for. Write what you want to write. Write what you want to read.


3. And my third and most important rule is this – never give up. The professional writer is the amateur who didn’t quit.

 

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