It’d be pretty tough to write a compelling thriller if we all were limited solely to our life experiences. Sure, a few lucky (or unlucky) folks would have truly exciting tales, but for the most part, we’d write stories about paying bills, buying groceries, and coaching rec league soccer teams. Guest blogger and award-winning author Carter Wilson reflects on dealing with the amusing but tricky moments when readers start analyzing the disturbing parts of his books for insights into his personal psychology.
If I Lived What I Wrote, I’d Be In Prison
By Carter Wilson
I hate the adage “write what you know.”
But I don’t hate it because it’s wrong. As an author, there are plenty of things about your life woven into your fiction, and most of the time, this is done unconsciously. The car your character drives has a striking resemblance to your own. A few choice turns of phrase that you’ve been known to use pepper your manuscript. Your protagonist’s drink of choice is, coincidentally, a margarita on the rocks, two parts tequila, one part lime, touch of orange liquor, and a drizzle of agave nectar. No salt, not ever.
No, I hate that phrase “write what you know” because too many readers take it as an unalterable truism. By readers, of course, I mean family members. They mean well, God bless ’em, but boy, do they want to know where all that darkness comes from. It has to come from somewhere, because, you know, you write what you know, and if the villain in your book fancies choking out hookers and making totem poles out of their torsos, well, we may need to revisit that time you went to summer camp when you were sixteen. What exactly happened at Lake Chumpagawa, anyway?
My mom always wants to read my manuscripts before they go to a publisher. In an early manuscript, I struggled mightily with the protagonist’s motivation for the way he behaved in the arc of the story. Then it hit me that a lot of his actions could be better appreciated in the context of him having lived through a traumatic childhood event, and I added in a fairly disturbing scene in which said character, as a ten-year-old, is molested by his teacher. (Full disclosure: unless I’m suppressing something, that never happened to me or anyone I knew).
So my mom reads the story and, in perfect Mom-form, graciously tells me she likes it and notes out a dozen or so typos, but otherwise says nothing. A month later (A MONTH!) I’m visiting with her and she says she needs to ask me something. What is it? I ask. Of course, she asks if I’ve ever been molested. Now, at this point, I don’t even realize we’re talking about my book, so the question hits me like a foul ball hurling at my head out of the blinding sunshine. What? Did you seriously just ask me that?
Well, she says, it was in your book. And authors only write what they know.
Imagine that. She had been holding that in for a month, trying to find the courage to ask me. Apparently, she had been calling my sister to recollect anything that could have happened. Of course, my sister recalled to her one time when she vaguely remembered a stranger asking me to go for a hike (and maybe this is the suppressed part) and thought the guy was a little creepy. That story, apparently, was the tipping point for my mother to finally ask. God, I felt horrible. I assured her that, to the best of my memory, the creepy hiker merely wanted to go hiking.
I’ve had other questions from family members, including, “who was that person based on?” Or, “why don’t you like to write happy things?” And once, “What are you hiding?”
Maybe there is a deeply rooted psychological answer for why thriller/suspense/horror writers gravitate toward the dark, but I think the truest answer is this: darkness begets tension, and tension begets a good story. If I truly wrote a book based on what I know from my real life, it would be boring as shit.
So, just to make sure we can be clear here, the following is a list of things I have never personally done:
- Crucify someone, literally (Final Crossing, 2012, Vantage Point Books)
- Participate in the murder of a child when I was fourteen (The Boy in the Woods, 2014, Severn House)
- Talk in my sleep about rape and torture fantasies (The Comfort of Black, 2015, Oceanview Publishing)
When I get gently worded questions about where all my darkness comes from, and how much of it is based on my life experiences, I usually just smile and politely mumble something about the book being fiction and relying mostly on my imagination. After all, an author’s imagination is their greatest tool.
But sometimes, when the mood hits me just right, I don’t reply at all.
I just look at them and smile.
Award-winning author Carter Wilson was born in New Mexico and grew up in Los Angeles before attending Cornell University. He is a consultant and frequent lecturer in the hospitality industry, has journeyed the globe both for work and pleasure, and as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. The Comfort of Black is Carter’s third novel. Carter lives in Colorado with his two children. Reach him at carterwilson.com
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