In one of my writing classes in college the teacher started us off with an essay about that old saw, ‘write what you know’, and how you actually know a lot more than you think. You might not know a lot about being an undocumented Salvadorean immigrant, but maybe you remember your first time in a strange place and how it smelled different–what it was like to encounter a completely new olfactory profile. Maybe it was alienating or freeing. But the specifics aren’t particularly important now that you have a frame for it. You’ve just leveraged your lived life to add some realism to a strange character.
And you don’t need a lot of this. A technique that Ray Carver used a lot, and to great effect, is something I like to call ‘pointillistic realism’. He often worked in threes. Just listed three things. One was usually highly evocative:
Mel handed me the saucer of limes. I took a section, squeezed it over my drink, and stirred the ice cubes with my finger.
There’s a Tobias Wolff story where he describes a scene outside as containing ‘teenagers selling oregano to tourists in white shoes’ or a very similar phrase. When I read that the first time I knew exactly what street he was talking about. The street could be anywhere, but you know that kind of street too.
So it doesn’t take very much detail to evoke something, and your life is already full of little details you can include to flesh out scenes and characters. So much of what we experience is universal. You just have to pick the right thing. So by all means, write what you know–but you can get a lot further on that than it seems at first blush.
What brought this to mind today is, I finally got the perfect picture of my morning commute. One of my characters takes the same train into town in the book I’m working on, and I’ve been imagining what it’s like to do for your first time.
Kenji woke Hideki up when the train got closer to San Francisco. The coastal range wrapped around South San Francisco and and joined with the highway on the left side of the train, and piers full of derelict ships and the biggest pile of garbage Hideki had ever seen greeted him on the right side. Kenji probably could have woken him up at a slightly different time. Hideki wondered if it had been intentional.
They went through a tunnel and entered the city proper. The graffiti that he’d seen hints of as they approached now showed up in force. It was like something out of a movie. There were unreadable words taller than he was, illegal but still beautiful murals, and some things that were probably ‘gang tags’, whatever it is those were. The rest was a familiar enough scene, with pallets leaning against shipping containers and garbage strewn here and there.
Maybe ‘here and there’ was the wrong term. Garbage was everywhere. But the people waiting at the 22nd street station didn’t seem to mind, or even really notice. Hideki got the impression that he’d be seeing a lot more trash than he was used to this trip.