Monday, August 2, 2010

Write what you know

Being here in the small town I was born in has my mind thinking back. One of the key phrases you hear often from the "old pros" and the writing teachers is this;  

Write what you know.

By this, they imply that if you should want to be a writer of screenplays or novels or probably anything else, you should write what you know, what your world is or was. In other words don't write a story about Brooklyn if you've never lived there. Or a story about doctors if you've never been one.

But what about science fiction?

Do you have to have been in another galaxy to write a Star Wars type movie, have you been on Mars in order to write the Martian Chronicles (by Ray Bradbury). More on this later.

I grew up to the age of 12 in the small town I mentioned. There is a saying that the person you are at 7, is the person you will be. I believe that. Most of the screenplays, at least the specs, and some hired jobs, were set in small towns. No coincidence.

In fact, my best script, according to many was Emperor of Mars, about as close to real life as I dared to make it. It was compared by one producer as similar to Stand By Me. 

The odd thing about the many small town scripts I've written is that I wasn't really conscious that I was doing that; writing what I know. It took a friend who's read most of my scripts to tell me that.  She also said that those scripts were generally better than ones set in a city or foreign location.

I  mentioned a screenplay that has been optioned and it seems will be out for Christmas. It was based on a real event, one that happened to me years ago. I was living with a very nice woman with three children,  preteens and one teen girl. We were driving back from Oregon to Calgary and our car, a formidable Maverick for those who might remember, when a piston rod ripped up through the hood.

This caused us to stay in a  little town along the Columbia River for 2 days during which we met several people and had what was then a boring time. And we missed New Year's Eve parties in Calgary, something the teen was absolutely crushed about.

But in the years that followed, that time seemed to be better as most past events do. We laughed about it and still do.

A few years ago I decided to write a screenplay based on that incident. A Christmas story is known in the business as an "evergreen", simply meaning that it can be televised over and over again at Christmas time. Same as movies about Thanksgiving or any other holiday that comes once a year.

And all networks and studios like a movie they can drag out each year for showing. One movie, Christmas Story is repeated for a full 24 hours at Christmas every year.

I used the basic premise of what was called Christmas in Nowhere but changed it drastically in order to fill out a 2-hour movie. (Actually 90 minutes without commercials). One needs conflict in order to make a story interesting and I injected a lot. 

I passed it around for a year or so, a lot of people liked it but nobody wanted to buy it. It stayed around Hallmark and ABC Family and even Lifetime for a few years. There was always an excuse to not do it, and I forgot about the script.

Then I get a call from a woman who said she wants to get it made, and she called from a real producer's company which meant this was real. This happened around the end of April this year.

(Next: Why a script is bought)