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New Experiences? Use Them in Your Writing

on August 14th, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on August 14, 2011

Writers are no different from others in that they get into ruts. Sometimes deep ruts.

We eat at the same restaurants, go to the same beaches for vacation, shop in the same stores.

We also see the same people either daily or weekly and pursue hobbies that we’ve worked at for years.

And we might write about the same characters in the same places doing the same activities.

While the familiar can be comforting, it can also bore us. And the common and familiar can certainly bore our readers. Put them to sleep. Keep them far from our books.

The familiar can also keep us from writing our best and most creative works.

But the new and different can stir our senses and open our eyes. And when we see something different and experience new emotions—or familiar emotions in an unfamiliar setting—we garner fresh story ideas and novel ways to present the common.

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I recently spent time in the ICU at a hospital and in a funeral home. And with the grieving family. And on the phone with more family and friends and colleagues of the man who died.

Emotions have been high, low, and off the charts. Stories have been plentiful, as have the tears and the laughter.

I’ve spent time in buildings and businesses and situations unfamiliar to me and yes, I’ve imagined fictional events and conversations that could take place in those locations.

I wasn’t intentionally looking for story ideas. But when you’re sitting in a funeral home waiting for people to make decisions, your mind can wander. And mine did.

The unfamiliar can make you think and feel and pay attention to experiences you know nothing about. You wonder about the couple in the next room and imagine why they’re consulting a funeral director. You wonder about their loved one and what happened to her. You wonder how those who deal with grief daily handle it—what does a funeral director do in her down time? How does she relax? What of the men who dig burial plots? What kinds of thoughts do they take home to their families?

A writer can draw from any experience and use what he finds.

Yet the unfamiliar spurs not only the writer, but characters as well.

Imagine yourself in a new place. Now put your protagonist there.

How does she react? What does she say? What feelings does the unfamiliar create in her?

What is brought out by this unfamiliar setting? What memories are awakened? What family dynamics are stirred? What emotions can no longer be repressed? What old loves can be rekindled? What former passions are ignited? What resentments come roaring back?

As a writer, don’t fear the new and unfamiliar. Instead, use them to bring fresh dimensions and untried emotions to your stories.

Visit a location new to you and note your reactions. Then imagine the reactions of characters in that location. Think of how different characters might react to such a place. How does an employee feel? What about a new employee? What about a client, visiting for the first time? How about the delivery man?

Many people have never been to a funeral home to plan a funeral—what’s it like behind the scenes?

What about a jail? Do you have a character visiting for the first time, unfamiliar with the structure and impersonal feel? What does the character think of the slamming and locked doors? What would a prison guard feel after 20 years of such work?

How about a morgue? A pawn shop? A factory? What do places such as these do to a character experiencing them for the first time and in stressful circumstances?

Unfamiliar places don’t have to be inherently sad ones. What about a newspaper office or the docks or a 100-story building that sways with the wind? Couldn’t a character feel out of place in such locations? Might she feel awkward or unsure, perhaps jangled and uncertain of what to do?

An office full of people who speak a language different from your character’s would be a challenge. So would a nursery full of crying babies to a man who’s never held an infant.

An eight-lane highway might produce terror in a 14-year-old intent upon getting his mom to the hospital.

And waking up in a different era or on a different planet would make any character fear for his sanity.

But while a character might be unsettled by any of these situations, the reader will be enthralled. If you work the unfamiliar to your advantage.

What to look for and use

Unfamiliar places are filled with sights, sounds, and odors that overwhelm the newcomer. Be sure to convey the sense elements to your readers.

Defenses are high when people venture into new situations and places—tap into character emotion and feelings. Reveal character by showing those defenses and the reasons for them. Don’t ignore character emotions when characters face the unusual.

New situations stir old memories—build tension and unease by showing the past intruding into the present.

The unfamiliar heightens tension; don’t allow your character to be comfortable in every setting and locale. Something should unsettle him, knock him off his game.

When the uncomfortable feelings have served their purpose, allow characters to grow comfortable with new settings and situations. Yet be sure to make that feeling of comfort come about naturally.

Mine the new and unfamiliar and the unexpected for situations and emotions you can use in your fiction. Don’t be shy about stepping out into the unknown—your own discomfort can pay off big time for your characters. Take what you feel from an uncomfortable place or experience and play it up for your characters.

Use what’s unsettling to increase tension and cause conflict. Use it to make characters do what they wouldn’t normally do, getting them into more trouble because they’ve been forced to do something they knew was wrong or improper.

Take your own new experiences, even the tough ones, and put them to work in your fiction.

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