Know Your Heart

When I was a fledgling writer, struggling to learn the writing craft, I came across the following advice:

Write what you know.

Like many sage pronouncements from the oracle of wisdom, this one is invaluable and true, but it’s subject to misinterpretation.

I failed to understand it for many years, although I tried hard at first to follow it. Then I realized that I couldn’t experience the events or visit the settings of the fantastical or historical stories I wanted to write about. I decided this saying wasn’t for me.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the only thing we can truly know is what lies inside our hearts. What we feel. What we care about. What motivates us. What we yearn for.

Those are the things we know and understand. Those are the things we can write about with conviction and honesty … if we’re willing to explore them and share them.

Everything else–the vista across the dusty plains of Sparta, or the battering rush of wind while sky-diving–can be researched through library and online sources, walking around a location, and interviewing experts and survivors.

Therefore, let’s amend the sage piece of writing advice to

Write about what you know emotionally.

Now, does this mean you should only spill your personal experiences? Not at all!

Real life is filled with trivialities and little incidents that don’t necessarily add up to much. Real life isn’t designed to be an escalating drama in quite the same way as writers shape a story. Let us not hobble ourselves by such limitations.

Instead, we can utilize a technique I call Emotional Transference. (Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?)

It’s a simple, three-step process of analysis combined with memory. Firstly, you determine the precise and appropriate emotion needed for any given situation in your plot. Secondly, you draw on your memory of having experienced that particular emotion. Thirdly, you transfer those feelings into your character.

For example, let’s use the situation of a man who has just discovered his wife has been unfaithful to him. We begin by analyzing this character, whom I’ll call John.

How does he feel about his wife prior to this discovery? Does he love her? How much? Has he been happy with her? How long have they been married? Do they have children? Did he adore her from their first meeting, or did it take him time to fall in love?

What type of man is John? Is he hot-tempered, impetuous, impulsive? Or does he rely on reason, keep his cool, and stay laid-back?

Do you see how the answers to all these questions will have an impact on his reaction to the news?

Let’s say that he first met her at a party, where he was sitting shyly in a corner and she was the darling center of attention. She was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. He was drawn to her immediately, so attracted that he left his corner and found the nerve to speak to her. For him, she has been the love of his life. And although it took him a long time and much effort to court her and win her, he has always adored her.

They’ve been married five years and have a three-year-old daughter. John–content with his job and home–has had no inkling that the woman he would do anything for is dissatisfied with her life … or with him. He’s been blind to everything, ignoring the signals she’s given him.

But now, he’s discovered the truth. What will he feel?

A single, overwhelming emotion at first … then a rush of several.

Let’s choose some for him:


Of course, we could simply sum these feelings up in a single word: heartbreak.

We could write, John was heartbroken.

How dull! Readers skim over such statements, with no vicarious sharing of the character’s experience. They won’t care about John, and will shrug off his plight with no more than a twinge of sympathy.

That is not how you enthrall readers.

Instead, we must show John’s heartbreak by describing and showing his emotions. Doing so will make John come alive.

Remember step two of this process? The remembrance of your emotions?

Let’s go back to our list. The first emotion on it is shock.

Sift through your memories to a time and place where you experienced shock.

Not mere surprise dropped on you suddenly, but shock.

Shut your eyes, and conjure up that event. Did you disbelieve what you were being told or witnessing? Did you need the news repeated to you several times? And inside, was your stomach hollow? Did your legs feel weak? Were you dizzy? Did you start sweating? Were you cold? Did you have to sit down?

Did you start crying at some point? Or did you stay locked up, numb and frozen?

Draw on those sensations, and transfer them to John, whose happy world has just shattered.

Will he be boring then? Not at all. Give him emotions that bring him to life and fit his story situation, and readers will remember when they, too, have undergone broken trust and betrayal. Their own awakened emotions will mingle with John’s, and they will care. They will feel that John is vivid and interesting, and they will want to see what John does next.

That is how you write the fiction that you know.

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