I hate the adage "write what you know."
Hate it. 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 phrases 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.
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
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 hell.
Comment below for a chance to win a signed copy of
MISTER TENDER'S GIRL.
USA Today bestselling author Carter Wilson explores the depths of
psychological tension and paranoia in his dark, domestic thrillers. Carter
is a two-time winner of both the Colorado Book Award and the International
Book Award, and his novels have received multiple starred reviews from
Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. Carter lives in Erie,
Colorado in a spooky Victorian house.
7 comments posted.
I loved your blog and the reaction your mom had. It left me with a huge smile on my face and thinking I might have asked my son the same question if he had written this book.
(Anna Speed 12:20pm March 8)