Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Toad

I've started a new story. It's called "The Toad." One piece of common writing advice I've generally ignored has been to "write what you know." Certainly, I use my life and experiences as the basis for characters and settings in my tales, but I typically veer far afield after that. Talera, Thanos, Kelmer. These aren't towns I've lived in. "The Toad" is going to be a little different. The story takes place at my house in Abita Springs. It involves myself and Lana. Pretty much everything except the 'toad' itself will be absolutely real. In fact, maybe the 'toad' is real too. I'll have to let you decide. Below is the opening few paragraphs of the story.

By the way, what do you think of the advice to "write what you know?"


THE TOAD

After Hurricane Katrina tore up New Orleans, my wife and I decided to get out of the city and find a place further north without so much noise and so many people. Lana discovered the perfect hermitage for us just outside the small town of Abita Springs, Louisiana. The house sat along a dirt road with pine forests on three sides. Our only neighbor kept entirely to himself, which Lana and I both appreciated.

We had a deck with a tin roof put on the back of the house so we could sit with ease and enjoy a big back yard shaded by oaks and magnolias. Bird feeders brought us cardinals, blue jays, doves, woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, and a brazen little thing we called Wrenny Wrenerson. In season, the yard swarmed with goldfinches and chipping sparrows. Occasionally even a few crows dropped by. In the evening, we threw our table scraps into the backyard for the birds or whatever critters might come. Soon, the local raccoons and possums began nightly visits.

The location was so pleasant, I decided to take off our first summer in the new place and try to write a novel. I’d wanted to for a long time. The deck became my office. A laptop and a cool drink was all I needed. The drone of cicadas and the flash of bird wings kept me company.

It wasn’t until a week had passed that I first saw the toad.
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41 comments:

Paul R. McNamee said...

Great opening. Everything is fine - until the toad shows up. Or, maybe it *is* a happy tale.

"write what you know" can only apply to universal aspects like human interaction and character. Clearly anyone writing fantasy or scifi can't literally know their setting firsthand - though it can be argued they should "know" it as its creator.

Even writing historical fiction - you can know the facts, but you can't "know" what it was like firsthand (if the history is old enough, I mean.)

I think "write what you know" is a guideline, not a rule, and shouldn't be taken literally or there wouldn't be any fiction!

Ron Scheer said...

I like a story told about a writer's own life. It sets up (or plays with) a different set of rules for storytelling that leaves room for the unexpected. Your story is off to a good start.

As for write what you know, I'd modify it to "write what you know well so it has a ring of truth." I lose interest in a writer who thinks they know more than they actually do.

Angie said...

I think "write what you know" is one of the most misunderstood and damaging pieces of writing advice in circulation. I've seen too many people take it to mean they should write stories about people just like them, set in places like the one(s) they've lived in, about activities they do themselves, etc.

Now, if you want to write contemporary Everyman type fiction, that's fine. But if you think you have to actually spend a few years working as a homicide detective before you can write a murder mystery, you're in trouble. And if what you really want to write is SF about colonizing strange planets in the far future, you're well and truly hosed.

I agree with Ron that, properly interpreted, it means going after that ring of truth. Using what you know about human behavior, and paying particular attention to different kinds of people so you can expand your repertoire of character types while still maintaining that truthful ring -- that's what "write what you know" means, or what it should mean.

Beyond that, you can look stuff up, or make stuff up.

The only positive anecdote I can think of regarding a more literal interpretation of that saying comes from Spider Robinson. He related having heard that advice when he was young, and the one thing he "knew" was drink, so he started writing the Callahan's Bar stories, for which I and many other readers are muchly grateful. :)

Angie

Ty Johnston said...

Ha! I like it so far.

I tend to think "write what you know" is a bit overrated. It's fine for a young beginning writer, but research can be great fun and informative. Research allows us to expand upon "what we know."

SzélsőFa said...

while writing what the writer knows may result in an honest tone, something most readers like; i guess most of the time the reader wants a story about characters, behaviours, human relations. now that is a field all writer should be well informed about.
apart from that, ditto what Angie said :)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Love it and am on my way down.
Many of my stories come straight from--my husband's life. A lot less from mine. Of course, every character owns part of me.

David J. West said...

I'm hooked on 'The Toad'.

When it comes to 'write what you know' I'd like to think I "know" my version of Ancient America and the Olde West, just like Robert E. Howard knew Hyboria and Edgar Rice Burroughs knew Barsoom and you know Talera, we know those places like no one else.

Deka Black said...

Well, Anguie said whatt i was thiking, nothing to add!

Charles Gramlich said...

Paul, I agree. I see some newer writers taking it to literally. I never did. a loose guideline at best.

Ron Scheer, oh I agree about writers who think they know more than they do, and turn out not to know as much as I do.

Angie, Yeah, like I say, my characters often do things in a way I'd do them, but they are doing different things too from any I've ever done. It's one of those things that too many people take restrictively.

Ty, I have been known to say, "write what you can 'learn' about." That research can teach you a lot.

Szelsofa, I like to read about stuff I don't know well, myself. That's a lot of the fun of it.

Patti, yes, every character for sure. uh oh, maybe I should say that for the folks who read In the Language of Scorpions. Some of the characters in there are really nasty.

David J., absolutely. We do know those places because we created them. That is the essence of what you know.

Deka, yes, she made some very good points.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That last line is a hooker!

Cloudia said...

That is a smashing entry! Welcoming, companionable, frank writing with no ornament or ego...I wanna know more about these people, experience this place, and learn what is going on with that TOAD!


Warm Aloha from Waikiki
Comfort Spiral

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G said...

Considering I've approached writing like walking into the tail end of an important conversation that somehow involves me, it would appear that the "writing what you know" rule is approached the same way by me as well.

Chances are that if I wrote what I knew, then I probably wouldn't have any legitimate writing credits, such as they are, attached to my name.

I can say with 100% certainty that I know diddly/squat about punk rock music and classical guitar and yet managed to write an entertaining short story that contained those things.

So I guess that means I should get the Peppermint Patty grade for this particular class.

As for the opening of "The Toad", for some reason, I'm picturing a major swerve coming up. Perhaps in the same vein as Bill Murray's character from "Caddy Shack"?

M. M. Fahr(en) said...

Oh, excellent opening. It is because you have ventured in so many 'far fields' that this more familiar setting and intimacy of tone preludes something which we know will be Gramlich.

As for me, I have endeavored to write what I DON'T know, to continue to learn by defying the 'rules'. Alas! I find again and again those wild and weary and wonderful adventures come straight from my arteries and are more me than I want anyone to see. . .

We always write from what we know, shallow or deep, well-lit or dim, twisted or true, rational or delusional. What in the imaginings come from other than our hearts?

M. M. Fahr(en) said...

P.S. I have great hopes for the toad in here.
My tree frogs agree (in chorus).

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, this one will be fun.

Cloudia, something wicked this way hops.

G., the swerve is coming but probably won't be as funny as Caddyshack.

M.M., you are right. Imagination is something we all know intimately.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I was enjoying your story until the toad showed up but I'm sure it gets better from here on. About "writing what you know" I guess if you don't you'd better have a damn good imagination. I don't mind writing what I know provided I don't personalise it too much.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Prashant C. Trikannad said...

I'm sorry, Charles, I published my comment twice, hence deleted the second.

Charles Gramlich said...

Prashant, don't worry. I double comments at times because of the way blogger works. And yes, what you know generally has to be disguised pretty well in stories.

Mary Witzl said...

Already hooked. I'll be back to find out about the toad.

I think the write-what-you-know advice is good general advice, for people who are just starting off and foolishly imagine that they can write about, say, the Kremlin, when they've never set foot in Russia and know zilch about its politics, or they can set a short story in Kiribati when they could barely place it on a map. I don't think it's meant to be followed to the letter, or we'd only write the driest crap -- and let's face it, science fiction and fantasy would take quite a blow.

ivan said...

I am in a dark mood this morning because of a financial disaster followed by a serious loss at love.

So your piece, beautifully written, and with a hint of O. Henry conjures images of a stranger in paradise, a stranger in your paradise.

I think, in my dark frame of mind, if I were to write such a story as yours, I would be haunted by a bluegrass song, "Perfume, Powder, Lead", which goes,

We were married in the Spring
She didn't want for anything
A loving husband, a little cabin, close to town

Working hard out on the farm
coming in to all her charm
until the one day, when the stranger came around

Well, at least not a serpent.

...The stranger is only a toad, and the story can go anywhere.

Really a great beginning, Charles and I'm looking forward to the...book?

Travis Cody said...

I like the opening. You set the stage nicely, and open the reader's mind with some relaxing nature domesticity. Then comes the suspense, because we don't know what the toad will bring.

As to writing what you know, I think our experiences do come into play. But I think only writing from one's own experience of every day life would get boring for the writer. And how would you create something fresh and new?

The Golden Eagle said...

I think that it never hurts to know what you're writing about, but there are a limited number of things people can experience or learn--after a certain point you have to extrapolate. Also, if the people in the story are realistic enough in their motivations, the technical details are usually easier to overlook.

The Golden Eagle said...

And intriguing beginning to your story!

laughingwolf said...

i like bret's take:
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/08/don-rsquo-t-write-what-you-know/8576/

as for amphibians: they all conjure up their own images and tales, depending on how your brain is bent... that's why i like lovecraft... and gramlich, of course ;)

i can see 'the toad' as a sinister character, not about to turn into a 'prandsome hince', as a frog might, once bussed!

Charles Gramlich said...

Mary Witzl, Thanks. I appreciate that. And yes, as a general guideline meaning to learn about what you want to write to get the details correct, indeed.

Ivan, sorry to hear of the misfortunes, man. The toad is likely to be a story, I'm thinking.

Travis Cody, very much so. It can get very boring writing within the constraints of just exactly what you know.

Golden eagle, I think youi can learn about settings certainly, which is easier now with the internet than ever before.

Laughingwolf, you know me, and know this toad is no prince!

David Cranmer said...

Off to a terrific start, Charles. Make sure you let us know when you finish "The Toad."

Greg said...

Nice intro -- has me wanting to read more.

I think "write what you know" can be good advice for some people, but it shouldn't be taken as gospel. Sometimes when you write what you know, especially about scientific or technical aspects, you may forget that your readers don't have the in-depth knowledge you possess, and you could easily bore them with unnecessary details or lose them by neglecting to explain important things.

For writers who are just getting started, it's probably good advice. Start with what you know, and like you pretty much said, depart from there.

Voidwalker said...

Definitely made me wanna keep reading, where you left off.

As for the "writing what you know," the same advice is true for public speaking. If you choose a topic you know, you are bound to have a better understanding, which can open up many avenues to better describe or explain aspects that might otherwise be grazed over. I think it's definitely helpful with regard to details, especially scenery, but I'm sure it's beneficial to the whole topic.

Rick said...

Heck with the toad. What about that creepy neighbor? No neighbor stays entirely to themselves unless...

As for writing what we know, why should we be limited? We're writers after all- we make what we know! :)

Charles Gramlich said...

David Cranmer, thankee. Will do.

Greg, I've seen that writing what you know backfire for sure in an educational sense. As you say.

Voidwalker, Never really thought about that with public speaking. Good point. SOmething to think about.

Rick, yes, our neighbor certainly appears harmless, but is he?

jodi said...

Charles, I think I love it! Maybe because it lets me know you and Lana better. Is that Toad goin' all sci-fi? I wrote a child's story of a lizard in my bed but I have a feeling you are not going that way. 'What I know' is the only way I can write!

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, I think the story is going to be horror! :)

sage said...

I like the description of your home! As for writing what you know, isn't one purpose of fiction to "write to know"? I'll look forward to the rest of your story, unless you start kissing toads, then I'm out... :)

Steve Malley said...

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII LIKED IT!!!!! :)

Jess said...

I love it. It almost has the feel of a memoir in real time but with a strong feeling of suspense. Now I'm left hanging: good toad or bad toad. :) Can't wait for more.

eric1313 said...

From the title onward, I think of one thing that guides this: Something that may not look like much, but is hard to kill. Ask any dog about that, I figure.

Snowbrush said...

Hey, Charles, for whatever if anything it's worth, I would want to know what kind of oaks shaded the yard. I guess I'm rare in that way, but if a writer isn't specific about such things, I can't envision the scene as well, and I question that he can either. Personally, I adore regional writing, and you live in a part of the country that people take an interest in.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sage, write to know, indeed! No toad kissing.

Steve Malley, thankee, man.

Jess, I think I've been influenced by Days of Beer to do more 'memoir' type writing.

eric1313, something weird for sure.

Snowbrush, we have several types of oaks in the yard, but I'll see what I can do.

Snowbrush said...

Yes, I know there are a lot of oaks down there, but some of them typify the South. Anyway, this might not be important to someone who didn't know trees, but for someone who does, it actually helps him or her to visualize the setting.

Charles Gramlich said...

snowbrush, the most common type in our yard are called Laurel oaks.