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Writing from experience?

October 1, 2008

The below guest post was written by Ellen Baker, author of the deliciously detailed novel Keeping the House. For more information about Ellen’s book or to request an author phone chat for your book club, stop by her website! Make sure to comment on this post for a chance to win a signed copy of Keeping the House.




A member of a book club I was phone-chatting with recently told me that she had a writer friend who’d told her that he was NOT writing from what he knew.  She said she didn’t believe him, and asked – is it really possible to write what you don’t know? 


Interesting question!  Of course, there are so many different ways of “knowing.”  Obviously, a writer can “fictionalize” an event that actually happened to her, or create a character who shares her occupation or her place or time, and then she’s definitely writing “what she knows.”


In my writing, though, I tend to use research and my imagination to create the setting and characters.  But I do find that, even when I try to keep myself separate from the story, my own experiences typically do come in – and usually it’s on the level of the characters’ emotions.


For example, in my novel, Keeping the House, the young housewife Dolly Magnuson experiences discontent in 1950 when her husband moves her to the small town of Pine Rapids, Wisconsin.  She tries to find her place in the community and to be the perfect wife, but her attention is captured instead by an abandoned mansion that she decides to fix up.  The other main character in the novel, Wilma Mickelson, lives in that mansion from 1896 to 1945, and experiences helplessness and fear and anger when her sons – and, later, her grandson – go off to war. 


I haven’t lived through those times or experiences, but I can imagine them because I spent my childhood moving from small town to small town and trying to figure out how to fit in.  I married a soldier just prior to 9/11 and feared losing him to war at the same time that I resented him for the fact that I was so helpless over the direction of my own life.  Later, when things settled down, I paid too much attention to comments that people made about my being a “bad wife” because I didn’t pack his lunch for him.


The entire time I was writing about Dolly, I thought she was nothing like me.


In my new novel, I’m writing about women who worked as welders at a shipyard during World War II.  I’ve never welded anything or seen a ship built, which meant I had to do a lot of research.  But I do know what it’s like to have friendships that change the direction of your life, to sometimes doubt the choices you’ve made, and how it feels when you think the winter is never going to end.


I imagine that, one day, the book club member’s friend will look at what he’s written and realize that it is from his experience, in some way, however distant or convoluted.  But I do think it’s both helpful and freeing, as you’re working, not to think about just exactly how your fiction is derived from your life – even to tell yourself that, in fact, it isn’t.  But, in the end, maybe the thing that’s just beyond the imagination is the fiction writer who can truly and completely divorce his or her own life from the story he or she is writing.


– Ellen Baker

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2008 11:34 pm

    Great post Ellen! I can’t wait to read your next literary feat.

  2. October 1, 2008 11:35 pm

    I already have this book Steph (as you may remember) so please don’t enter me in the contest.

  3. October 2, 2008 12:59 pm

    i would love to get this one! thanks.

  4. October 2, 2008 1:08 pm

    And ofourse i have linked you on my blog! 🙂

  5. October 2, 2008 2:19 pm

    Ellen Baker sounds like my kind of gal! How dare people say she was a bad wife because she wouln’t pack her husband’s lunch! What friggin’ century were they from?

  6. October 3, 2008 11:40 am

    Enter me, please!

  7. October 5, 2008 4:51 pm

    I just finished reading Matrimony, Joshua Henkin’s novel, whose main character is an aspiring novelist. Near the end of the book, Julian offers this writing advice…

    “Write what you know about what you don’t know…or write what you don’t know about what you know.”

    After a bit of reflection, I think this makes a lot of sense…as do Ellen’s wise words!

  8. October 8, 2008 1:49 pm

    Great posts! I always love to read what authors have to say about the writing process!

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