Monday, August 24, 2015

What You Have in Common with Chaucer...and Mark Twain

I always wanted to be an author, growing up, so I always answered with that when people asked me. They would then invariably try to give me advice about how to do it. Write what you know, they would always say. That’s confusing advice. You can’t always know what it’s like to swim in the ocean or climb a tree, but you can still write about these things. But authors like Geoffrey Chaucer and Mark Twain understood the idiom, and they used it in their books. You probably have something in common with these two greats, too. 

It’s Not What You Know…

I found out that “write what you know” can apply to just about anything. You can write about going to the Grand Canyon after visiting it. You can write about shopping because you’ve done it. But many of the greatest authors used it to create their characters. Two of the greatest character-creators ever were Chaucer and Twain...and they did it by writing not what they knew, but who they knew.

Huck Finn, one of literature’s most well-known characters, is totally based on someone Twain knew. The great author said himself that he re-created a young man named Tom Blankenship “exactly as he was.” And in so doing, Twain got credit for crafting a remarkable character. Only he didn’t. He just wrote about someone he already knew.

Chaucer wrote about the everyday people he encountered, too. His “Canterbury Tales” are considered to be one of the most important story collections ever written. Yes, ever. And if you were ever forced to read it, as I was, you’ll see that he was basically describing the people he met or saw. He just described it really well, that’s all.

Sometimes, to be one of the greatest authors, that’s all you have to do. Pick a “character” that you already know, and describe them well. Who knows? You may end up writing literature that everyone else has to study in school later.

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