Tag Archives: write what you know

Making it personal

Experts tell you to write what you know.  That always confused me.  I started out writing mystery short stories and I didn’t know much about crime.  I went to conferences and listened to panels on poisoning, fingerprints, DNA, and serial killer profiles, etc., because I wanted to get the basics right.  And I’d read lots of mysteries to know the rhythm and format.  But I finally decided that “write what you know” meant write what you emotionally know.  I’ve never killed a person, but I’ve sure been mad as hell, felt betrayed,  or wished a person out of my life–forever.  The thing is, what we live, what we feel, is what makes our writing real.

In my third romance, the protagonist’s dad dies soon after he retires from the army.  My dad didn’t get to live long enough to retire.  After a long bout with multiple myeloma–where his blood became so thick, he was hooked up to a machine that took blood out of his left arm, used centrifugal force to “clean it,” and returned it to his right arm–he finally lost the battle.  His blood got thicker faster and faster until his heart had to work too hard to pump it.  I didn’t want to do that to the characters in my book, so Paula’s dad got a quick, unexpected death, but I know that feeling of loss and the aftermath.  Paula tries to help her mom through her grief.  That, I know, too.  So do my sisters.  Paula, herself, has lost her military husband overseas, and she has two kids to raise.  My daughter’s a single mom, and even though we helped her, I know it’s no piece of cake to raise kids without a husband.

In my fifth romance (and it’s far, far in the future before it’s released), Joel–the love interest–is raising his daughter by himself, because his wife isn’t emotionally strong enough to deal with their daughter, who has cerebral palsy and will never be mentally older than twelve.  She’ll never grow up and move away.  She’ll always live with him.  Which Joel is fine with, because, lord, what a beautiful human being she is!  But she’ll always be a child–the good and the bad of that.  My cousin has cerebral palsy, and is maybe mentally eight or nine, and I remember my grandmother and my cousin’s mother worrying about what would happen to her after they died.  My sister, bless her, took her in, but I’ve met more people with those worries.  When a child won’t grow up, will never be able to make it on her own, what happens to her when you die?

In the romance I’m working on now, Karli goes to Mill Pond to deal with her grandfather, who’s mean and uncooperative, but is reaching the point where it’s not safe for him to stay in his own home without help.  I’ve been there/done that.  My John’s mom was unstable when she didn’t take her meds, and after John’s dad died, sometimes she took them, sometimes she didn’t.  Even though we checked on her every day and brought her to our house for suppers, it didn’t work. Our two small daughters got on her nerves.  She’d wake up at two a.m. and call us.  Her doctor finally told us, “Find a place for her, or she’ll be in the hospital.”  The doctor told Harriet, too, thank goodness, and then Harriet pushed for me to find a good nursing home for her.  Those decisions are almost always messy.  They’re messy for Karli in book six, too.

You don’t have to battle witches or vampires to find the right emotions for good to battle evil.  Most of us have battled something in our lives.  We know how it feels.  A writer’s life experiences and the emotions they invoke add depth to our stories.  So use what you’ve got.  Write what you know!

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If only…

I’ve been talking to a few fellow writers lately who are frustrated.  It happens to all of us. We ask ourselves, “If only we’d known…”  And then kick ourselves that we went in the wrong direction on our books, our careers, or our choices.  I look at the novels and bundles I have on Amazon and ask, “Should I have written something besides urban fantasy?  Why do I always pick glutted markets?”  I wasn’t even following a trend.  I just read one and liked it, and it sparked ideas for a series of my own, and then another, and…well, you get it.

Do I regret writing them?  Not really.  When I wrote mysteries, I hardly ever wrote action scenes.  I concentrated on plotting.  And motivations.  And clues.  With urban fantasy, you write a LOT of action.  Female characters kick ass.  And have attitudes.  Did I enjoy that?  You bet I did.  My characters changed.  They became more assertive.  I like that.

Way, way back when I’d only been writing for a few years, I went to a romance conference with two of my friends.  Gloria was interested in writing contemporary romance.  Dawn wrote historical romance.  At the conference, three panels met each hour.  I volunteered for the one no one else was going to.  I listened and took notes to share with my friends.  While they went to panels on How To Develop A Romance and Creating Historical Settings in a Romance, I attended The Blushing Typewriter–about sexy scenes and how to get in the mood to write them.  I learned a lot:)  A writer there asked if I’d like to co-write romances with her, but back then, I couldn’t imagine myself ever writing a romance, so I turned her down.  Do I regret that? Not really.  I wasn’t ready.

I think writers have to give themselves time to grow as people and as writers before they can tackle certain things.  A friend lamented, “If only I’d known character arc and plot points before I started my first book.”  I know I studied a book on plotting when I started out, but it didn’t do me much good.  I wasn’t ready yet.

Some people are naturals at things, and I admire that.  I’m not one of those people.  I have to learn by my mistakes, but do I regret my mistakes?  Not really.  I learn from them.  I gave myself time to grow.  I lived more, and experienced more.  I suffered more setbacks and hardships.  Laughed more.  Loved more.  Ate  more–(and it shows).  But all of it made my writing richer.  When experts say Write what you know, I only half listen.  I’ve never battled an evil voodoo priest or fought a necromancer.  When I was young, I was sheltered and naive.  And believe me, that was a blessing.  But now?  I can pull out lots of emotions. I’ve suffered lots of disappointments,  know what it was like for my dad to battle Multiple Myelama (a blood cancer) and for my mom to battle Alzheimer’s.  I’ve watched friends lose husbands and children.  Life beats you up.  You earn scars to offset all the good times.  And those scars, you can put into your writing.  Those are things you know.

I have a plastic, storage box in the basement, filled with novels that I wrote, sent to a few publishers, and then tossed in a drawer.  Would I ever take them out and try to rework them?  Hell, no!  Those were the novels that I cut my writing teeth on.  They’re filled with mistakes.  And it seems to me, when an author goes back to rework an old novel, he somehow reverts, and the mistakes drag him down.  I love each and every one of those novels, because they did what they needed to.  They taught me to write.  Because it takes a lot of writing until you get better at it.

Look at some of your favorite authors.  Read, if you can find it, their very first novel ever published.  Then read their current work.  Most writers–not all–get better over time.  So don’t mourn your novels that crash and burn.  Learn from them.  And grow.  Until you’re awesome!

my webpage: http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

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Writing-does a happy childhood work against you?

A friend of mine read one of my manuscripts recently and said, “You need to show more anger, more emotion.”  Now, I thought I had, but she went on to say, “You’re always on such a level keel, no wonder you have trouble letting your characters be dirt bags once in a while.”  That gave me pause for thought.  I mean, I work hard to be a fairly nice person, but does that hurt me as a writer?  I’d had someone else, earlier in my career, tell me much the same thing.  She asked, “Were you happy as a child?”  “Oh, yes,” I answered.  “Well, that’s why you’re having trouble writing,” she told me.

Could that be true?   Do people who grow up with parents who argue or hit or worse have the edge because they have more emotions to pull on?  I do think that a writer needs a certain amount of life experience to enrich their writing.  And adversity certainly builds character…and the ability to draw from anger, disappointment, and loss.  But I don’t know many people who’ve breezed through life, free of scars.  Not all of us, though, have the perspicacity to dwell on those things to enrich our writing:)

A new writer came to Scribes a while ago to read a piece about how she’d been sexually abused and then turned to drugs to deal with the issue.  She became addicted, and now she was finally drug free.  It was a deep, moving story of her journey that would be impossible for me to tell.  Her words had a raw emotion and aggressive strength that came with her pain and turmoil.  I can’t tell that story, because I don’t know it, and to some point, “write what you know” makes perfect sense.  But I can tap into other emotions, ones I’ve experienced, to bring other stories to life.   Me and Suzanne K were the tallest people in our class, year after year, through school.  We both hit 5’10” before high school.  She had a figure.  I was a stick.  Did the nickname Olive Oyle bother me?  A little.  Not much.  I spent a lot of time living in my own head.  And that was probably my biggest obstacle to being a writer.  I had a lot more fun living in worlds other writers created.

My friend, who teaches handwriting analysis, still badgers me to “open” my vowels.  My a’s and o’s and e’s are legible, but scrunched.  She tells me over and over again that scrunched vowels mean that I need to “let loose,” to “open up.”  Maybe.  But I’ve learned that even if I tend to be a mite private in my life that doesn’t have to apply to my characters.  I can let them have tempers, be “kickass” or mouthy–all of the things that I’m not.  My characters aren’t me, thank goodness!  They can be anything, as long as I can relate to their emotions, and that makes them fun to write.

I’ve played with a few characters who aren’t “nice,” that I’m pretty attached to.  Caleb, in Fallen Angels, left Heaven because he didn’t want to follow rules.  He wanted to do as he pleased, and if that meant that he had to drink human blood to replace the benefits of the Light, then that’s what he’d do.  I meant for him to be a villain, Enoch’s adversary.  But Enoch still loves him, and oddly, so do I.  Does that mean I’m embracing my “dark side”?  Beats me, but I know I have one.  We can all be selfish once in a while.  And let’s face it.  Readers like certain villains.  Look at Hannibal Lecter or Walt in Breaking Bad.  I think what involves readers is the human condition.  If a character meets a hurdle and makes the wrong turn, that might add more interest, not less.  If we can make a character real, even if he’s flawed, and make him sympathetic, even if he kills people, we can identify with him.  So dig deep and let your characters show true depth–their worries, fears, and uglies.  Readers have felt those things, too.  They’ll understand.