Oh, remember that old saying “write what you know”? Scholars have been trying to simultaneously support and debunk that adage for millions of years. (Yes, it dates back to the early Jurassic period and Shakespearasaurus.) But me? How do I feel about it? I can confirm and deny the statement with equal fervor, depending upon which story I am writing.
For today, I will tell the tale of how my own life informed the humor of NORMAL NORMAN. I will support “write what you know” even though I had no idea what kind of animal Norman was when I began writing. That little tidbit I will leave for later…
One of the most common phrases overheard at Chez Lazar is, “Mommy, you are NOT NORMAL.” So that is how Norman came into being. I created NORMAL NORMAN with every intention of making him ABNORMAL. His opposite-than-expected antics are the basis for the humor throughout the book.
Then, I gave this strange animal his own stuffed animal. Guess what I named that stuffed anteater? Something soft and cuddly which would sound funny when Norman referred to his pal. I stole the name “Mr. Scruffles” from my daughter’s favorite plushie and had Norman call him “my wovey-dovey Scruffle-di-poo.” Again, real Lazar life crept into my story.
Then at one point Norman tries to escape. I wanted something hilarious for him to race away in. It triggered a memory of my husband’s favorite stuffed toy as a child, a koala named Rufus Dunebuggy. So what did Norman hop into? A dunebuggy. Think of it, a purple orangutan driving a dunebuggy—what’s not to love?
Finally, there is a line in the book when the junior scientist tries to pretend that all the previous madness did not happen. She tries to gloss over her major meltdown. So she says, “Please pardon that interruption. We were experiencing temporary technical difficulties.” Once again, I mined my mind for that humorous little pause. A similar thing happened to me in elementary school. I was being filmed but made a mistake and I asked the teacher to start over. She shook her head NO in that very authoritative teacher way and I had to think quickly to cover my goof. So I said the line above. And I’d also like to say that I got an A on that project!
So try it—comb through your own experiences to find humor for your stories. You don’t necessarily have to come up with something out of nowhere. Take it from somewhere. If it happened to you and it made you laugh, that’s good material. It’s gold. Write what you know!
But I am going to be abnormal (and a pain in the butt) by telling you that you can also write what you don’t know. Like, what kind of animal your character is. I did not know what species Norman was when I wrote NORMAL NORMAN. I thought the illustrator would have a far better idea than I would. There had to be some visual humor at play, and I did not know how best to approach that, so I left it up to him. And guess what happened? S.Britt created a character so far beyond anything I ever could have imagined!
In conclusion—write what you know…? Or don’t? That is for you to figure out in your next manuscript, my friend!
Tara Lazar loves writing bios that make her sound witty and interesting, but often fails. Her picture books play with puns, irreverent humor and irresistible characters. NORMAL NORMAN, featuring a nerdy purple orangutan, released this spring from Sterling. Tara is the founder of Picture Book Idea Month, affectionately known as PiBoIdMo. She is a RUCCL council member and a speaker at SCBWI events. Tara guffaws with a unique laugh that is often mocked by her two daughters and husband. If you’d like to bribe her, Manchego cheese and Rice Krispie Treats will do the trick.
To stay in touch with Tara, follow her on Twitter @taralazar and check out her website at taralazar.com