Writers are taught to write what they know, and read and write voraciously every day. But ‘what I know’ has limits, and – much as I love to read and write – given life’s many other responsibilities, sometimes I just want to close my book, turn off the computer, and turn on the TV.
Since writing is deemed a lofty pursuit, and television viewing falls more in the couch-potato category, I used to feel guilty about watching TV – until I discovered its power as a writing tool. Covering all genres, television programming offers countless examples of successes and failures in plot, pacing, setting, characterization, and dialogue. By becoming an engaged viewer – paying close attention to what works, what doesn’t, and why – I’ve become a more mindful writer.
Television also provides an excellent springboard for research. PBS informs on everything: ancestry, natural wonders, historical periods, modern-day legends. Need legal speak or courtroom insights? Check out “Judge Judy” or “Law & Order.” Business strategies, buzz words, boardroom drama? “The Apprentice.” For medical info, watch “The Doctors”; hospital scenarios, “Grey’s Anatomy.” Cooking terms/tools/menus: “Master Chef” or “Rachel Ray.” Glimpses into the country music industry: “Nashville.” The possibilities are endless.
Sheriff Walt “Longmire” (who says more in a glance than words can ever convey) presents a fantastic writing exercise. When Walt delivers a particularly intriguing look, I challenge myself to describe it in words: ‘As their eyes locked, fear snaked across the room.’
Sometimes TV provides an enlightening mirror. Once, a sitcom actor suddenly reminded me of one of my own characters-in-progress. Why? Because his persona was so one-dimensional and flat! My fictional friend promptly got a makeover.
Used wisely, television is a powerful resource. Wordsmiths are seldom told to watch TV daily, but I’ve birthed many an innovative idea while kicking back with the tube. By becoming a more engaged viewer – eager to analyze, critique, and expand my world – I’ve also become a more skilled and successful freelancer.
Wendy Hobday Haugh’s eclectic writing career began with a greeting card sale to Hallmark. Since then, she has tackled children’s magazine stories and articles, coauthored a children’s non-fiction book, SLED DOGS (Dodd, Mead, Inc. 1983), published writing articles and humorous parenting pieces, poetry, profiles, personal essays, short mysteries and romances, and a church history book. Her latest ‘first’ was the sale of a rebus to Highlights for Children.