Every aspiring writer has heard “write what you know.” This age-old adage expresses a general truth that has stood the test of time. My understanding of those four words, however, has evolved with each book I’ve written.
I took “write what you know” literally for my first novel. Until Thanksgiving is loosely based on a major event from my life: Moving for a job from Lexington KY, where my family has lived for generations, to Washington DC. I never had a run in with a serial killer, but main character Josh Freeman and I lived in Dupont Circle around the same time and frequented the same restaurants, bars, and other places.
Memories weren’t much help for my second or third novels. No Good Deed takes place in DC in 1966; Happy Independence Day picks up three years later in New York City. Plots and characters were shaped by what I came to know from reading, interviewing gay and straight contemporaries, and visiting hundreds of web sites.
You’d think I was writing non-fiction, right? Even the weather is accurate. No Good Deed contained so many reference to trademarked products, the publisher asked me to replace at least half with generic terms. Getting things right turned out to be a time-consuming obsession that, in the end, added little to no value to the story.
For Whippersnapper, I broke free from the shackles of reality to write a contemporary story set in a fictional Central Kentucky town. The imaginary world enabled me to more broadly draw upon my life experience to create characters and settings as opposed to specific memories. I didn’t have to worry about getting things right, and the places are more than backdrops — they’re part of the story.
My fifth novel is a blend of real and imagined places in and around Lexington KY. Characters in The Case of the Missing Drag Queen talk about local landmarks, but the action takes place in fictional locations. I’m anxious to hear what my Lexington friends have to say about it.
Details do matter. Mistakes take readers out of the story. But unless it’s vital to the plot or says something important about a character, details are more likely to take away from than add to a story. I’m getting better about digging deeper to tap into “what I know,” but have barely scratched the surface.
Always more to learn — that’s of the reasons why I love writing. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.