Write What Your Family Knows by Julia Day
Early in my attempts to learn writing, I was bombarded with advice. It seemed to fly at me from every direction.
- Show, don’t tell.
- Avoid passive voice and –ly adverbs.
- Write what you know.
Getting all of those rules correct was almost paralyzing. Fortunately, I attended a workshop by the lovely writer Virginia Kantra who, when asked for her best piece of writing advice, said:
- If it works, do it.
- If it doesn’t, don’t.
That was liberating. It permitted me to learn the rules—and to break them when they didn’t work for my story. Now, I allow myself to:
- Show much, tell a little.
- Use passive voice and –ly adverbs carefully.
- (And my new favorite is) Write what your family knows.
It took me a long time to figure out how to exploit that third rule. For years, I would dream up backstories for characters that included amazing jobs, interests, or talents—things like trauma nursing, mountain biking, or playing cello. Only problem was, I knew nothing about them.
It didn’t take long to realize just how much I had to know about a topic to make it come alive. I’d spend half of my writing time checking and rechecking facts on the Internet, or sending “follow-up” questions to my primary sources.
Then one day, as I was about to research astronomy for a character, I remembered that my husband loves space. Really loves it—as in gets up in the middle of the night to watch meteor showers and follows the Mars Rover program as if he’d been on the design team.
That’s when it hit me. Some of the best primary sources ever are at my house. My husband and daughters are:
- easily accessible,
- knowledgeable about interesting things, and
- hard to irritate.
How about that teen character who loves astronomy? My husband suggested that I add details about constellations, the International Space Station, and The Martian. When I sent him a text that read: “What would my astronomy character name his cat?” Seconds later came the perfect response: “Orion. The Hunter.”
Since I write YA, I’ve relied for years on my daughters to help me write authentic stories. One daughter is in college; one’s just graduated. Currently, they’re at that perfect age where they’re experts at their passions, yet they can still remember high school (or have friends with siblings in high school).
My older daughter loves anime, and she’s trying to educate me. So far, I haven’t used that information in a book; it’s clear to me that I’d have to be completely immersed in anime to pull off a character who’s addicted to it. Maybe one day… In the interim, my older daughter has suggested plot points for my works-in-progress that involve filming videos for a YouTube channel, watching Marvel series, and the wonders of Photoshop.
This daughter was a teen when I started writing my new release, The Possibility of Somewhere, and played a critical role in plotting the story. The hero, Ash, is the son of Asian-Indian immigrants. From the very first chapter, he learns that he’s long misjudged the heroine (Eden)—and as his attitude transforms from puzzled to adoring, he struggles with the certainty that his parents won’t approve of her (for a variety of reasons). Although the story is told from Eden’s POV, I still had to understand Ash well enough to give him reactions that Eden could perceive. That’s where my older daughter came in. She already knew about relevant topics like applying to college, financial aid (okay, I knew about that too), scholarships, and diversity in high schools. As a bonus, she had her Asian-American friends who gave answers to keep Ash relatable.
My younger daughter also helped me with this book. She’s a college senior, whose studies are focused on social sciences and world religions. Her interests proved invaluable as I wrote about Ash. Naturally, I also interviewed adult friends in the Indian-American community, but it was my younger daughter who bridged the gaps in my understanding, especially about Hinduism and the ethnic/cultural factors that can affect how immigrants assimilate. I will lean on her expertise in religious studies throughout my writing career.
I haven’t entirely changed how I write a book. I still create the story that wants to be told—and if I don’t know enough about the major plot points, I will use my “old-fashioned” process of searching on the web, visiting museums or libraries, and interviewing outside experts. But, for the sub-plots or backstories of secondary characters, I may discover the perfect idea or detail simply by talking to my family over dinner.
Here are my recommendations for writers as they write what their families know.
- Organize your research: Keep a research folder on your computer for any ideas that pop up. List your family’s interests, hobbies, talents, and careers. Catalog where they’ve traveled. Note the health concerns they or their friends have experienced. Return to this folder when you need an “expert” to help you enrich a character’s development.
- Give full disclosure: Make sure that your family understands what you’re doing and how you plan to use the information. You don’t want them surprised by something in a book that they considered to be private.
- Celebrate a win-win: Use conversations about their expertise to engage your family in your writing process. We writers have a tough job that steals time away from our families. If we can involve them in the success of our work—and they enjoy it—then everybody wins.
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About the Book:
Ash Gupta has a life full of possibility. His senior year is going exactly as he’s always wanted-- he's admired by his peers, enjoying his classes and getting the kind of grades that his wealthy, immigrant parents expect. There's only one obstacle in Ash's path: Eden Moore—the senior most likely to become class valedictorian. How could this unpopular, sharp-tongued girl from the wrong side of the tracks stand in his way?
All Eden's ever wanted was a way out. Her perfect GPA should be enough to guarantee her a free ride to college -- and an exit from her trailer-park existence for good. The last thing she needs is a bitter rivalry with Ash, who wants a prized scholarship for his own selfish reasons. Or so she thinks. . . When Eden ends up working with Ash on a class project, she discovers that the two have more in common than either of them could have imagined. They’re both in pursuit of a dream -- one that feels within reach thanks to their new connection. But what does the future hold for two passionate souls from totally different worlds?
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About the Author:
THE POSSIBILITY OF SOMEWHERE is Julia’s first YA contemporary romance.
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-- posted by S.P. Sipal, @HP4Writers