They tell you “write what you know.” But that’s not really what you have to do. What you know is only your start, your inspiration. You need to transform it into something that others will read, that will inspire and affect them in some way.
Listen! Two centuries ago a tavern stood here. It had the only room for miles around big enough to hold village meetings. Two men came here, missionaries for an odd Christian sect. They preached with their hearts and impressed the village people. And when it was over, the people went outside. There had been a rare winter electrical storm while they were listening to the missionaries. The villagers saw new snow on the ground and St. Elmo’s fire on the trees, throwing a strange light on the landscape. They took it for a sign that these missionaries spoke the word of God, and they believed.
They took that inspiration and transformed their lives. In a few years’ time most would move away to join others of their faith. But inspiration does not transform everyone in the same way. Some never returned and died in their new faith. Others came back to this land because they loved it, maybe continuing to practice their new faith, maybe abandoning it for other faiths. They died here, and were buried in small family lots. What had inspired them did not inspire their heirs, who moved away. The buildings fell down and disappeared, the woods reclaimed the farms and roads, but here and there some traces of the people remain.
That was history, an episode of history I know well. Those of you who have been reading The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge will recognize how I took this material as my inspiration, and transformed it into the episode where Abigail Lane comes across an abandoned farm with a family burial lot. Abigail sees magic pervading the land and the trees of the old farm, just as those people long ago saw St. Elmo’s fire suffuse their landscape.
I didn’t expect to transform my readers’ lives with that episode. But I did want to inspire them with a sense of the eerie and mysterious, and add a touch of sadness. That much I wanted to carry over from the history to my fiction.
If it sounds like I’m comparing religion to fiction, well, yes I am. Religion reaches out from its realm (whatever that may be in your eyes), and inspires people with meanings that transform their lives. Fiction reaches out from the minds of other humans and inspires people with ideas and plots and characters and descriptions. If fiction doesn’t often transform other people’s lives completely, it at least allows them the temporary transformation into another world of other people.
So don’t write what you know. Take inspiration from what you know and transform it into something that will affect and maybe even inspire your readers.
Well said, and something I’ve tried to do with my own work but could not explain as beautifully as you have.
Is this Savoy, MA?
Yes, it’s the New State village in the north part of that town, and those were Shaker missionaries.
Beautifully said, wonderful post!
I love how you bring historical truths into your current fiction.