We’ve all heard the old writing saw Write what you know. I usually embellish this as: Write what you know. Write what you love. Write what you’d love to know.
But thanks to the pandemic, many of us are spending way too much time at home, and I for one am getting restless. I long to resume my in-person schedule, hanging out with my publishing pals in Manhattan and meeting with writers at conferences from coast to coast and visiting with family and friends in England and Europe.
This cabin fever has prompted me to amend my Write what you know mantra:
Write what you know.
Write what you love.
Write what you’d love to know.
Write where you’d love to go.
ROAD TRIP OF THE MIND
If you’re suffering from cabin fever, too, then I have good news for you. The best part about being a writer is that we get to go anywhere, anytime, anyhow. All we need is pen, paper, and imagination.
My darling daughter Alexis lives abroad—which means I haven’t seen her or my adorable granddaughters for going on a year now. Sure, we zoom, but it’s not the same. It’s infuriating and depressing and heartbreaking—so much so that at one point I found myself suffering a melancholy I just couldn’t shake.
I knew I needed to do something. So I turned to the one thing that has always worked for me: Write my way out of it.
I couldn’t change the circumstances that keep me away from my family, but I could conjure up a story to take me away to the vineyards of Alsace, the canals of Colmar, the Christmas markets of Strasbourg. This region is where many of my forebears lived before coming to the United States in the 19th and early 20th century. Sooner or later everyone in the family makes a pilgrimage to the medieval church my great-great-great grandfather helped to restore a hundred years ago. Alexis and I took a memorable mother/daughter trip there some years ago.
I can relive those happy days by setting a novel in that special place, populating it with characters inspired by my relations, past and present, and sending them all on an Alsatian adventure. Just thinking about it makes me smile.
MAP YOUR WAY THROUGH YOUR STORY
For me, the real writing on a new novel doesn’t begin until I find my way into the story. This can be an image, a setting, a character, or a line of dialogue that sparks a scene in my mind. When one doesn’t readily occur to me, I play around with these elements until inspiration strikes.
For this story, I spent a Saturday afternoon making a vision board. I got out an old bulletin board and flipped through family albums, magazines, and hat boxes full of souvenirs, tacking whatever appealed to me to the board in a colorful collage of photos and postcards, maps and memories, signs and symbols.
This exercise was the perfect pastime for a rainy day, a story builder as well as a mood booster. By the time I was finished, I had scenes and settings, plot points and themes, sub-plots and supporting characters, all bubbling up out of my sub-conscious. And I was feeling very, very good.
That good feeling has persisted. Sure, the hard work of the first draft is ahead of me. But the journey has begun. I’m on the road, which furls out in front as far as my imagination can take me. Allons-y!
Postscript: The vision board sits on the antique church pew in the den, where I do my work. My mother comes in to look at it every day, admiring the six generations of our family pictured in the collage and the many landmarks in Alsace that have played such a significant role in the history of our clan. The fact that she finds the vision board as much of a comfort as I do is an unexpected gift of grace.