Monday, April 11, 2016

Write What You Know? Not so fast

By Vicki Delany (Eva Gates)

In her post of last week, Barbara writes about the need for the author to put themselves in another’s shoes.  Essentially, isn’t that what most writing, except for memoirs and biographies, is? You are telling someone else’s story. I suppose you can fictionalize your life story, (and it’s said that most first novels are largely auto-biographical) but anyone who writes more than one book has to start moving out of what they know.

We all have heard the adage “Write what you know.” I’ve never been a big fan of that idea.

What do I know? I know how to write computer code for 20th century computers; I am highly computer-literate; I do a mean jig-saw puzzle; I can paddle a canoe
, and I am a very good baker.

All of which, let’s face it, is pretty dull.  Writing about my life as a computer programmer would make a mighty boring book.

So, instead I go by the adage, “Write what you want to know.” 

I have no background in law enforcement whatsoever, so when I decided I wanted to write a police procedurals series set in Canada,  I set about learning what I needed (and wanted) to know.

When I was asked to write the Lighthouse Library series set in the Outer Banks, I didn’t proclaim, "But I’ve never been to the Outer Banks,” instead I said, “Sure.”  I then read up on the Outer Banks and on lighthouses, and I went down there for a visit.

Not only did I learn many things I wanted to know, I got the chance to visit a wonderful place, and to learn a lot about the fascinating history of lighthouses.

As eating is important to any good cozy mystery, I immersed myself in North Carolina cooking (It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it).  Fried green tomatoes, shrimp po’boy, shrimp and grits, hush puppies. Yum. 

Here’s a bit from the third book in the series, Reading Up A Storm:

I practically know Jake’s menu by heart. I didn’t have to think hard about what to order. “Shrimp and grits please.”
“You’re becoming a true Southern woman,” Connor said.
“If Southern means shrimp and grits, then I’m in.  And a couple of hush puppies too, please.”

These days you can do a lot of research on the Internet, but I maintain that particularly when it comes to setting nothing can replace actually being there.  Google Earth can show you the layout of the streets compared to the ocean or lakes and rivers, and Streetview can give you a snap shot of streets and buildings at a moment in time, but nothing replaces actually seeing the light at dusk, or the sky when storm clouds move in. Even the best computer program can’t give you the scent of salt on the air, or the feel of the hot sun on your arms.

And only by being there, can you experience those unexpected moments that add real color and texture to your book.

Case in point, on my last visit to the Outer Banks, I went to the Bodie Island Lighthouse at dusk to see the light when it’s on.  Coming back I saw a deer at the side of the road.  Coming from heavily wooded Ontario, I wouldn’t have expected to see deer where the vegetation so space and poor. 

So, now Lucy Richardson, my protagonist, watches out for deer when she drives back to the lighthouse at night.

There really is nothing like being there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've often said the same thing- there's no substitute for being there, even with as much research as you can do online. Your post was filled with fodder for all the senses, and I loved it!