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The Novelist’s Guide to Writing (Only) What you Know

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig Tags: Brian Klems, online editor blog.
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In my novel One Amazing Thing, nine characters are trapped by an earthquake in the basement of a high-rise building. When they realize there’s no escape, they begin in their panic to lash out at one another. After a bad fight that brings down chunks of the ceiling, a student named Uma urges them to focus their energies on something positive by each sharing a story from their lives, something they’ve never told anyone. When one of the other women protests, saying she doesn’t have a story, Uma insists that everyone has at least “one amazing thing.”

I, too, believe that we all have stories, wonderful, amazing ones floating around us—or even inside us—like magical spores. I have long relied on “found” stories—or snippets of them—to create my fiction. I’m not alone in this. Most of us bump up against amazing things more often than we realize. If we can remain in a state of openness, ready for the great story that might come to us any moment, and if we can learn to identify these moments of power, we’re off to a great start. But how to transform these moments into successful fiction? To create stories that are ours, that ring with authenticity, that have personal depth—but that are not restricted by the autobiographical? I’m going to share with you three techniques that have worked for me.

by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

1. Meld disparate experiences into an unlikely fictional unit.

Sometime back, while on a visit to Kolkata, the Indian city of my birth, I went to see a friend in the old, northern part of the city. As we were chatting over tea, I heard a series of explosions. My friend explained that the old Chatterjee mansion on the corner was being demolished, to be replaced by an apartment complex. We went to the balcony to look at this beautiful, dilapidated home, with its aged marble exterior and its green-shuttered, floor-length windows. Even as we watched, a wrecking ball shattered a wall. Generations of families—grandparents, parents, widowed aunts, married sons with their wives and offspring—had loved and quarreled and outsmarted one another in that house. Its demise signaled the end of a way of life.

That night I lay in bed and imagined residing within such an orthodox home as a girl. What would I have loved? How might I have felt restricted? What might have caused me to rebel? A single protagonist alone could not express all the reactions one could have to this world-within-a-world, filled with traditions and secrets. What if there was another girl, a cousin? What if she responded vastly differently to the same rules? What if she discovered a secret too terrible to tell her beloved cousin?

These what-ifs (crucial to the writing process) fired up my imagination. I didn’t get any sleep that night, but by the time the hawkers on the street below started calling out their wares, I had the idea for my novel Sister of My Heart. During the rest of my visit, I went to as many old homes as I could. I mystified relatives by asking to see prayer rooms or storage areas under the stairs or old-style bathrooms with claw-footed tubs. I stood on terraces and recalled the games my cousins and I used to play. I looked down on the street below and tried to imagine how a young woman, restricted by orthodoxy, might feel as she viewed life passing her by. But in spite of all my field research, I still didn’t feel ready to write the novel. Something was missing, something pungent and powerful, a conflict that would impel the story forward.

Back in the U.S., I continued searching for that missing something in newspapers, in magazines, in my daily interactions with people. A frustrating year passed. Then one day I came across a TV program that discussed the problem of fetal sex selection, a significant issue in India that had troubled me in the past. Pregnant women (often coerced by their in-laws) would go to prenatal centers to learn the sex of the unborn child. If the fetus was a girl, it would often be aborted. As I watched the grainy footage of dimly lit centers where women kept their faces averted, I began to imagine those faces—and how the women they belonged to might have felt. In my mind, suddenly, a face came into clearer focus: that of one of the cousins in Sister of My Heart.

What would happen if she found herself in such a clinic? Who could she turn to? If her only choices were to have the abortion or to walk out of the marriage, what would she do? And, just like that, the missing chunk of the plot fell into place. Two very disparate experiences from my life, one personal and emotional, one objective and intellectual, had merged into an unlikely fictional unit.

To take one personal experience that is meaningful to you and let it inspire or inform your work can be powerful. To translate more than one of them into a single work can be exponentially more so. After all, while you will likely come across many people who can relate firsthand to any one of your life’s experiences, only you have lived them all. Find innovative ways to revisit and reinvent these meaningful moments in your fiction, and you quite literally will be writing the story that only you can write.

2. Take sides—against yourself.

Sometime before I wrote “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter,” now my most anthologized short story, I had become aware of a growing problem in my community: the reluctant immigration of aging parents to the U.S. from India. Deprived of their familiar support systems, these immigrants did poorly in their new environment, often becoming depressed or ill. The issue made me uncomfortable. I knew I’d face a similar situation soon—my own widowed mother in India no longer had immediate family there. Indeed, a few months later, she came to our home on an extended visit.

It was not a success. My mother found it difficult to adjust and resented being expected to change lifelong habits at her age. She was bored and lonely when my husband and I went to work—and sad, though I didn’t realize it then.

I, too, was full of resentment. My life was disrupted by her demands. In addition to my work responsibilities, I ran around doing things for her all day—or so it seemed. By evening, I was too exhausted to even think of writing. Worst of all, nothing I did made her happy. When she returned to India, declaring that she would rather die there than live here, I felt both angered and guilty.

To heal myself, I decided to write a story about the experience. I had an arsenal of details: How my mother would criticize me for asking my husband to share the household chores. How she would rise before dawn and clatter around the house, waking us all. How she refused to use the washer and dryer and would instead drape her hand-washed saris over the backyard fence, so that I lived in fear of complaints from our neighbors.

But the more I dwelled on these facts, the worse I felt—not just as a person but as an artist. The characters in my story were wooden and unsympathetic. The mother was a harridan. The daughter was self-righteous and whiny. I threw away draft after draft in frustration. But I had to write this story! Go where the pain is, a writing teacher had once told me, and I knew from experience that she was right.

I finally realized that the story wasn’t working because I had an agenda: to prove that I (thinly disguised as the fictional daughter) was a good person who had done her best with her unreasonable mother, the story’s villain. But in doing this, I was misusing the story form. Stories are for understanding the nuances of life, for empathizing with characters in spite of—or perhaps because of—their exasperating frailty. If I wanted my story to succeed, I had to give up my identification with the daughter and become the opponent.

It was when I made old Mrs. Dutta the point-of-view character that the story came together. It wasn’t easy. But I forced myself to plunge into her homesickness for India. I finally began to feel her loneliness, her bafflement at being trapped in a country where the rules had changed overnight. And the story came to life. I understood this, too: The story did not need a villain; most stories don’t. Mrs. Dutta’s situation was compelling enough by itself.

Your real-life conflicts are full of riches to be mined for your fiction. After all, conflict is what drives plot. But you may find, as I did, that you’re too close to the subject matter of your life’s battles to achieve the objectivity you need to tell the story with the complexity it deserves. Try stepping into your adversary’s shoes with honest empathy, and you may find the fresh perspective your story needs.

3. Use your secret expertise.

When I was planning my first novel, I knew I wanted it to be about immigrant life in America, its challenges and joys. The subject fascinated me because I was living it myself; it surrounded me on every side in my Indian-American community. But I didn’t want a realistic documentation of daily life to portray the ways in which we were changing America and being transformed by it. I’d already done that in my debut collection of stories, Arranged Marriage. This time I wanted something unusual and unexpected, something to astonish readers into delight and attention.

The answer came to me one day when I was cooking. As I opened the steel container that held my spices and their pungent smells rose up to greet me, I thought of how recipes containing them had been passed down through generations of my family—not just to gratify the palate, but for their medicinal properties and lucky powers. I knew that turmeric was a germ killer that could be smeared on fish to preserve it until frying time. Considered sacred, it was also used in prayer ceremonies. Fenugreek soaked in water soothed stomach ailments. Red pepper thinned the blood, mitigated colds and guarded against the evil eye. All of this was common knowledge in my ancestral village. But here in America, this information was rare, even exotic. What if I created a character who truly understood spices? Who had studied them all her life and now used her knowledge to help her community? Where would I place her?

It came to me that one of the most magical places I have encountered in this country is the Indian grocery store. Stepping into one is like stepping into a separate world. The shadowy aisles are crowded with mysterious substances—mysterious, that is, unless you possess a special knowledge. I visualized a woman walking the aisles, plunging her arm into a bin of coriander, tucking a stick of cinnamon into a lonely customer’s turban to bring him friends.

That was how the idea, protagonist and setting for my first novel came to me: Tilo, the owner of the spice store, had special powers. She could look into her customers’ hearts; she could commune with the spices and ask them to do her bidding; in exchange for this power, she had promised never to fall in love. Suddenly I could see the plot structure: Many people would come to Tilo for assistance, and their problems would help the reader understand the immigrant community. I also had my conflict: Tilo would fall in love with one of the customers and be forced to choose between her power to do good and the love she craved. The resulting novel, The Mistress of Spices, became a bestseller.

The things that are second nature to you, or that have fascinated you since childhood, can be some of your most authentic, amazing things—and yet authors often overlook them, hidden in plain sight. In fact, drawing on your secret expertise is perhaps the most natural way of all to write what you know.

These techniques have helped me take the raw material of my life and shape it into fiction that no one else could have written. I am confident that if you experiment with them, you will be equally pleased with the results.

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4 Responses to The Novelist’s Guide to Writing (Only) What you Know

  1. differentdirection says:

    Thank you, very helpful article. Putting yourself in another persons shoes, helps to make your characters real.

  2. mrkoczwa says:

    A lot of people seem to forget that last piece of advice. There so many things we can pull from things we are heavily involved in or deeply connected with. It’s a great tool for writing.

  3. mrkoczwa says:

    I find that so many people forget or simply ignore your last piece of advice. We all have things we are either very involved in or deeply connected with, and it’s such a great tool in writing.

  4. Pattypans says:

    These principles and ideas are fascinating and empowering. I’m thrilled with the possibilities they open up. This is one of the most helpful articles on where to get ideas (one of my weakest writing areas) that I’ve read in a long time. Thank you, Chitra!

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