Two Authors, one great book Colorado Courtship. Cheryl St.John and Debra Ullrick tell us how they see the age old advice to writers...
Write What You Know
True enough, John Grisham is an attorney and writes legal thrillers and Robin Cook is a doctor and writes medical thrillers, oh and forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs wrote the series of books from which the television show Bones was created. But is that the norm? Here’s a snip from my book Writing With Emotion, Tension & Conflict that will be out from Writers Digest this fall: “One of the most irritating questions we can be asked is if we write from personal experience. Well, of course we write from personal experience. But do we do all the things and feel all the things that our characters experience and feel? Hardly. My answer is always, ‘My life is way too boring to write from personal experience.’
“I doubt anyone has asked Stephanie Meyer if she created a family of vampires from personal experience. Do they think Stephen King had a supernatural encounter in a deserted hotel or that he cut off his arm to see what phantom sensations were like? Seriously, people. We’re writing fiction from our individual worldviews.
“We become these story people, and we imagine what they would feel like—how they would behave, given their background and experiences and the things that are happening to them, because we’re creative and sensitive. We write from our deep creative wells of imagination, and we have lived and felt enough to be able to imagine how someone would feel in a given situation.”
I call it method writing. Becoming the character. “You don’t have to have experienced something to imagine how it would feel. No one who sees an Amber Alert has to question how the parents are feeling. That’s a universal trigger.
One of the many things I do that drives my husband crazy is obsessively watching all the behind-the-scenes clips for movies. I know you’ve seen interviews with actors where they are talking about their character as though it’s a real person. To them it is. They become that person to take on the persona of the role.
It’s method acting. It’s how actors dredge up tears and show drama. They put themselves in that person’s place and experience the scene as though it’s happening to them. You have to know your character inside and out to write like this. Superficial writing will never convey deep emotion.”
On Ted(dot)com Andrew Stanton has a video in which he says, “Stories are affirmations that our lives have meaning.” I loved that. He goes on to say stories are, “confirming some truth that deepens our understanding of who we are as human beings.”
We’re not so different from people who lived a couple of hundred years ago or those who live in other lands. Because our basic needs and desires and dreams are universal, it’s not so strange to think we can know what it would be like for an alien trapped on this planet or how a Hobbit feels.
Writing what we know is writing characters with depth, it’s emotional connections, relationships, love stories, losses, trials and victories. So maybe Hemingway had it right.
What is the real motive behind the saying, Write what you know? What are the people who stress this trying to say? Is it one of those things where someone started it, like those old slice-the-ends-off-of-the-ham thingy? You know the one where the mother sliced the ends off of her ham before she put it in the pan, so the daughter did it for years too until someone asked her why. When she couldn't answer them, she called her mother, and her mother said it was because the pan she had used was too small, so she had to cut the ends off of the ham to make it fit. Is that what ‘writing what you know’ is all about? Did someone write what they didn't know and it didn't work, so they advised someone else not to do because it didn't work for them?
Or is it because someone picked up a book and they knew more about the subject than the author did? If so, what would you say to that author? Would you bash them like some reviewers do when they inform the author that they didn't get all their facts straight?
There will always be naysayers and critics. There has to be balance. We should do research if we’re talking about a specific place, or a specific disease or time period etc. For example, in The Bride Wore Coveralls, I set my story in Alabama. I've never been there, but I love the south, so I wanted to visit it in my story. I called friends who lived there, called the chambers, read stuff online and even had a lady who was born and raised in that area read it over several times to make sure I had it right. Guess what? I still had someone inform me that I didn't get it right.
I say, write what you don’t know, learn what you don’t know, write what you do know, but most importantly listen to that still small voice inside of you and let Him guide you. Let Him tell you whether or not you should listen to what others are saying. Sometimes the answer is no, and sometimes it’s yes.
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If Violet Kristofferson had known that her new employer was the town undertaker, she might never have come to Carson Springs as his cook. Yet she needs a fresh start away from scandal. And Ben Charles's unflinching faith could be her path to something truly precious—a new family.
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The Rancher's Sweetheart by Debra Ullrick
The cowboys on her uncle's ranch show Sunny Weston no respect—except for foreman Jed Cooper. A riding and roping contest is Sunny's chance to prove herself. But now that she's falling for Jed, will she find courage to take the biggest risk of all, and trust her heart?
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