Most writing follows a certain form, whether fiction or nonfiction. Newswriting and creative non-fiction are fact-based, humor amuses, biography chronicles a life. Fiction tells an invented story, whereas, genre fiction adheres to certain inherent strictures, ie, mysteries leave clues, romance relates a developing relationship, horror shocks, fantasy world-builds. Readers expect when they pick up a thriller or an autobiography or a true crime that it’ll follow whatever form’s intrinsic to that genre, but what if you want to define what you’re writing even further? This is what I call writing for context, or putting that extra level of specification into your writing–for clarity, for authenticity, to strike the right mood. Shall I explain?
Historical fiction is one of the best examples. Aside from not including an HD TV in your Victorian drawing room, certain phrasing and references will lend you writing more credibility, as well as anchor your reader in the era. The best way to get this is to read works not so much about the time of which you are writing, but from the time. For example, from the 18th century, Jonathan Swift or Henry Fielding, 19th century, Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, early 20th, Sinclair Lewis or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Pay attention to the cadence of their dialogue, their use of phrasing, their historical references, the position of their wording. He was a hale fellow, or Shall we meet at half-past seven? will lend a certain credence to your writing. Now, no one will expect you to construct your exposition with thees and thous, but if you’re writing about 18th century Quakers, you might expect to see a few of those whiskered words in their dialogue.
Another example is writing in the first person. I find this type of writing gives you the most license to experiment. Take the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. In this novel he writes from a the perspective of a 15-year-old with Asperger Syndrome. He includes the protagonist’s tics and phobias, sprinkling the narrative with logic and math, numbering his chapters with only prime numbers. By writing with this context in mind, Haddon places us firmly in the character’s mind, and makes the experience resonate long after we put the book down.
There are many examples I could go into to illustrate this principle, but basically, it’s almost like Method Acting, or maybe even a little bit like time travel. As soon as you sit down to write, put yourself into the mind of your character, in both time and setting, and let it lead you down its little garden path. If it’s engrossing enough, your minions will soon follow.