If I were to ask you about where you’re from, dozens of images and memories would likely come to mind. Some good, some maybe not so good. And if you’re a writer, where you’re from holds a firmer place in your subconscious than the average person. I believe the deep-seated nature of a writer’s past is due to his skills of observation and squirreling away memories and details for future use. Writers also tend to be deeply emotional people, although that’s not always obvious to the casual observer; our childhoods—those formative years of our lives—hold emotions aplenty. And somehow, we remember a surprising amount of them. As a result, writers often take inspiration from where we grew up or the place we consider home. This inspiration can come from a place of nostalgia and appreciation, or it can come from a place of resentment and pain. Our experiences all come together to strongly influence what we create.
Don’t believe in the power of the home to influence writers? Take some famous Irish writers, for instance—James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, William Butler Yeats. Their work is full of the rolling green countryside, religious tension, and resilience of Ireland and its people. Harper Lee’s encounters with racism in her hometown in the Deep South of the U.S. inspired the fantastic To Kill a Mockingbird. Stephen King is so enamored of his home state of Maine that several of his books, such as ‘Salem’s Lot and Carrie, are set there.
I want to encourage you writers to know that not only is your home a valuable source of inspiration, but an inevitable one. Often, when we first start out writing, we set our stories in our hometowns, base our main characters on our best friends, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this, and again, I believe it’s unavoidable to a certain extent. And as you grow as a writer, what you include in your work from your past may change—it may be as subtle as a powerful description of the desert terrain fueled by the memory of your childhood backyard. Or maybe your main conflict is inspired by a fight over a plot of land in your neighborhood when you were a teenager. Maybe you’ll just include the smell of Sunday pot roast at your grandmother’s house in a short story. Know that it’s okay to include these snippets of reality in your stories. Not only is it okay, but oftentimes these details and themes pulled from real life ring truer than fiction.
However, I also encourage you not to limit your imagination to where you came from or the things you personally went through. They say to “write what you know,” but that doesn’t mean you have to have gone through/be an expert in everything you write about. What matters is that your character went through it, and that you know it through their eyes (and possibly through studious research). Getting inside your character’s skin and asking them questions is a way to “know” before putting pen to paper, is it not? So draw from your life, yes, but don’t limit yourself to the palette of your own experiences when you write.
Our characters are affected by where they came from. That whole backstory thing is rather important. Why would the backstory of the writer be any less important? In the words of Terry Pratchett, “It is important that we know where we come from, because if you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.”
By Madeleine Mozley