Write what you know means …

When my granddaughter was not quite three, one of her favorite movies was Disney’s The Aristocrats, but for a while, no one realized she had redubbed it. Then, one day, we heard clearly her request to watch The Rest of the Cats.

She didn’t know the meaning of the word aristocrats, so she heard words she did know. That’s a frame of reference. It’s what we all use every minute of our lives. The brain uses frame of reference when it receives sensations to filter and identify each correctly.

In that same sense, we all filter what we read against our experiences. Does it match, enhance, or refute what we already know? Even when researching a new topic, we have to fit it into our particular frame of reference to make sense of it. That’s also the way we write.

If we write about a certain time, say the summer of 1965, our first response is to fit that into our frame: I was ten years old or that’s the year we moved to Idaho or that’s when Grandpa took up skydiving. We can learn what happened in the greater world that year, but that information will be added to, mixed with, or colored by what we already know about that year in our egocentric world.

And, like my granddaughter, if we’re true to our frame, we use the language of that point of view. We use words that are common to us, the ones that flow naturally from our lips, the ones we don’t have to look up in a dictionary or borrow from a thesaurus.

But, but, but what about writing fiction? Does this mean we can only write about characters like ourselves? Of course, not. As fiction writers we have the privilege of being many selves. We just have to discover and stay within the frame of reference for each character. Only then will our characters ring true.

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26 thoughts on “Write what you know means …

  1. Interesting way to look at it~

    I like to think it’s also “write what you WANT to know,” because why would you write about something (in fiction) that you don’t want to read about/explore yourself? And, yes, frame of reference keeps it real, and yet is so different from writer to writer.

    “The Rest of the Cats”…love it!

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  2. I have an ESL student and its an interesting experience trying to get him to understand the intricacies of the Englsih Language. His life’s experiences are so different. As writers there needs to a certain level of flexibility.

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  3. Frame of reference. Yes, we must have one to help us understand. Without it we will surely call it “the rest of the cats.” My young daughter was signing a church song. The words were: In the arms of sweet deliverance I will lay my heavy burdens down… My little girl was signing: In the arms of Sweet Liver Lips I will lay my heavy burdens down. I corrected her and she thanked me. I couldn’t help but tease her. I said, Liver Lips? She said, well, I wondered…

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    1. Oh, Carol, that’s so funny. Your story reminded me of when one of my sons was five and had a Bible verse to learn. As he recited it to me I realized he was saying, “In my Father’s house are many matches …” 🙂

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  4. ‘The Rest of the Cats’ is an excellent alternative title. I love the way children misinterpret words. Quite often their version is more exciting than the correct one. My daughter used to think that spectators at a football match were speck potatoes.

    Creating characters with different voices is one of the most exciting things about writing fiction. I love it when you can really get into your character’s head… or maybe they get into our heads.

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    1. It makes you wonder about the world they live in, doesn’t it, Rosalind? They often don’t question, they just accept that football fans are “speck potatoes.” 🙂

      And I think it’s both with our characters. Pretty scary when you write horror. 😕

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  5. Linda, this is a great topic–I find myself drawn to ideas for novels that require me to do a certain amount of research (often for the locale, character occupation or background, etc) but I do believe that there has to be a good deal of KNOWN information in my stories for them to ring true and feel authentic.

    And sometimes the research can get so overwhleming and all-consumming…

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  6. Excellent line of thought. I loved the part about applying it to our own frame of reference. As writers of fiction we become many people, and it is important we maintain the aura of each character.

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  7. My best work includes a touch of memories which allow me to lose myself in the story. Going back to a different place and time. I’m not sure I could ever write in a time I had never lived. I admire writers who can.

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  8. I agree with the idea that we discover ourselves and have many selves. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m eager to create a character who does something I’m not real familiar with so I can start doing that to understand him or her a bit better. That brings another aspect into the conversation I guess, finding yourself in something you’ve never done.

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  9. isn’t writng like the words to this song?
    I like dreamin’
    Cause dreamin’ can make you mine
    I like dreamin’
    Closing my eyes and feeling fine
    When the lights go down
    I’m holding you so tight
    Got you in my arms
    And it’s paradise ’til the morning light

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  10. As you know, I’ve been experimenting with a murder mystery for NaNoWriMo. The frame of reference for a character is really critical in this genre, I think.

    I’ve been struggling to make killing another person (something WAAAY out of my own personal frame of reference, BTW) a logical action/reaction for my murderer. It makes sense to him/her, and I need to convince potential readers of that — as well as to why other suspects, with seemingly the same or greater motivation to kill, would or could not do the deed.

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