Write what you know. It can be a very restricting piece of advice when taken literally. Sometimes we want to write on something that we don’t have an in depth understanding of, and that’s fine. In fact, I’d encourage it. When writing in unknown territory use your resources. Reach out to friends and professionals in the field. Write what you know, and learn what you don’t.
Write what you know. We’ve heard that phrase so much, it’s become a cliché, and we often equate it with writing what we have personal knowledge of, as in a career. I’ve found writing what I know to mean much more.
When I sat down to start Justice Delayed, my first Memphis cold case novel, I stared at the blinking cursor on the blank page for a good two hours. It was as if everything I knew about writing had suddenly deserted me.
I paced a bit, got a cup of coffee, thumbed through a couple of craft books, and then remembered, write what you know. Okay, what did I need to know about the story? Before I can begin any story, I have to know my characters since my characters drive the plot.
That’s where I started to work—fleshing them out. And hit a wall. My heroine is a TV reporter, something I only know about from watching the news. I have no personal information about the job. But I do have a friend who is in the field and shot an email off to her for information. In a bit, I got an email back, and we communicated back and forth until I felt I had a handle on my heroine.
My hero is a sergeant with the Memphis Police Department. Again this is out of my realm of expertise, but I had a contact in the MPD Cold Case Division already lined up. A year earlier, he gave me a tour of the cold case and homicide departments along with his contact information, and I’ve kept the airways hot with texts and emails as I’ve written these novels.
When you know nothing about a subject, find someone who does.
I grew up in Memphis so the setting was just a matter of reacquainting myself with the area. However, part of the story takes place at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, a place I know nothing about. I quickly learned that not all maximum security prisons are equal. Every state has different procedures. But through a lot of research, I discovered a blog written by a person who taught classes at Riverbend, and she provided the information I needed, things like the prisoners, even those on death row, could have jobs. That surprised me. Again, find someone who knows what you don’t.
All right, so far I am not writing what I know. So where does it come in?
For me, the real meat of writing what I know comes into play with my characters’ emotions. While I’ve never killed anyone or even plotted to kill someone, I have had fantasies have plotted to get my own way about something. Haven’t you?
When I was much younger, I thought I knew what was best for almost everyone, and proceeded to plan the details. It’s only in looking back that I can see how wrong I was. But I vividly remember my single-minded focus to get what I wanted. Creating characters with that blind ambition works for your protagonists as well as your villains.
Another thing that helps me is remembering how it felt as a child or teenager to get caught doing something wrong. Or the emotions I went through when I covered up my wrong-doing. How I justified what I was doing and rationalized it even to myself. These are emotions we are all familiar with, and are emotions we can pour into our characters. And not just antagonists—let your protagonists wrestle with blind ambition. They’re also flawed, after all.
In writing what you know, remember your own greatest desires and fears. Maybe you’re afraid of spiders—you can infuse that fear into a character. I was locked in closet one time and didn’t like being in enclosed places as a kid. Still don’t. My heroine of Justice Delayed hates being in a place she can’t easily escape from. It was easy describing how she felt because I knew it.
Her greatest desire was to get the plum job of TV anchor, so she took risks. She also always felt she had to prove herself because she had survived while her sister hadn’t. Even though I didn’t have a sister who died, other events happened in my childhood that drove me to prove I was just as good as anyone else.
I can still remember as a child when we had indoor plumbing installed in our house and lying in the bathtub, thinking that when I grew up I was going to fill the bathtub to the top of the rim—our dad wouldn’t let us run over two inches of water in the tub. The reason being, more water cost more money, something we didn’t have much of. That desire drove me for a lot of years. Give your characters that kind of drive.
Writing what you know: dig deep and take your experiences, your hurts, your fears, your desires and write them into your characters. Then, you will have believable characters readers can identify with. Even your villains.
Patricia Bradley is the author of Shadows of the Past, A Promise to Protect, Gone without a Trace and Silence in the Dark. Bradley received the 2016 Inspirational Readers Choice Award for the third Logan Point book, Gone without a Trace, and has been a finalist for the Genesis Award, a winner of a Daphne du Maurier Award, and winner of a Touched by Love Award. Bradley is cofounder of Aiming for Healthy Families, Inc., and she is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Romance Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime. Bradley makes her home in Mississippi. Learn more at ptbradley.com.
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