Write What You Know or Research, Research, Research?

John Le Carre was a government agent before he started writing spy novels. Hank Phillippi Ryan is an investigative reporter who writes about an investigative reporter. On the other hand, Tom Clancy was an insurance salesman before he wrote espionage novels. Lee Child was a TV producer, among other jobs, before he started the Jack Reacher series. Readers of our blog know I’m a cyber crime fighter who writes about cyber crime. How about you, my fellow Miss Demeanors? Do you write what you know, or do you write based on research or another source of inspiration? Cate: I’m a former business journalist who covered technology companies, often the cute social networking startups that ended up taking over the world. I was also a television news producer. I think the decade of journalism, working for newspapers and magazines, taught me how to research and write tight. I bring that to my fiction. My stories, however, are more close to home than anything that I covered. As a domestic suspense writer (or psychological suspense, given my upcoming book), I write about close relationships that go wrong. The macro is not as important as the micro for me. Michele: I’ve done some writing using a lawyer as a protagonist, but I’ve had the most fun writing the character of rogue lawyer turned island bar owner, Neil Perry, Sabrina Salter’s significant other. Neil is your typical irreverent, smart, bad boy lawyer. My lawyer colleagues all love him. Some of them think they are him. There is no inspiration better for understanding human depth and conflict than witnessing the agony of people who find themselves in family court. I had more than thirty years of this kind of “inspiration” as a family law attorney and mediator. There are no stakes higher than the threat of the loss of your family as you know it. Paula: I follow my own advice, outlined in my writing books: Write what you know. Write what you love. Write what you’d love to know. I started off as a reporter, and that has served me very well in terms of research as well as craft. I also was an acquisitions editor for many years and that has served me well as an agent and as a writer. But in terms of specifics, I can trace the influences in my work pretty easily, as I think most of us can: 1) Growing up in a military family informs my fascination for all things military and law-enforcement.2) My mother read mysteries and so I did, too.3) My love affair with British literature (and I include crime fiction in that) began when we were stationed in Europe when I was a kid and our British friends introduced me to Sherlock Holmes, and grew as I grew and discovered Jane Austen and Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. My mother took me to Paris and I learned to speak French and I fell in love with all things French as well, including the magnificent George Simenon. Any excuse to weave in anything about Europe or the UK or Shakespeare or Paris is one I can rarely resist.4) I grew up with dogs and cats and I have dogs and cats, so there are always dogs and cats in my stories.5) I am a woman of enthusiasms and these always show up in my books, from chaos theory to potager gardens to Greek mythology. When it comes right down to it, I use whatever I can to help make a story work. And everything I’ve ever done, everything I’m doing now, and everything I will do in the future helps me prime the pump. Tracee: Certainly my life and interests have influenced my writing and my characters. I practiced architecture and think that plays out in my enthusiasm for the nuances of locales. At the same time, I’ve lived and traveled extensively in the US and abroad, and the places I’ve been, and the people I’ve met, walk through my pages. I am also influenced by my early (early grade school) love of mysteries…. how could I not want to contribute to the genre? Ultimately I think that what plays out in my writing is that I am interested in about everything…. I may not be an expert in anything, but I love new experiences and ideas and situations and that plays a role in inspiring the next story. Writing is living vicariously. What a joy it is! Susan: I would add to Paula’s list (which I agree with 100%!) that I also try to write about things I have something to say about. I love cozies. I think Agatha Christie saw me through my childhood, and when I began writing my Maggie Dove mysteries, I was very mindful of Miss Marple, but also wanted to put a Susan Breen spin on that. So I brought in my enthusiasms for church and small villages and feral cats and the Hudson River and economics and Russian history and so on. Alexia: I’m a physician (family medicine) who’s chosen a career in public service instead of private practice. Yes, I’m one of the oft-maligned career Civil Servants. I started out in a primary care clinic at a Military Treatment Facility, changed to Veterans’ Administration outpatient clinics, then decided adventure in the primary care clinic at an Alaskan Native Hospital was the way to go. (I was wrong.) I headed back to the Lower 48 where I took a job at a Military Entrance Processing Station examining applicants for the military. (Think of George Bailey’s 4-F scene in It’s a Wonderful Life.) Then I moved up into a policy job at the HQ (the job I have now) where I work on medical policy governing medical qualification for military service. My first non-clinical job. Oddly, I don’t write about medicine. I get so wrapped up in work, writing serves as a check and balance. Writing reminds me that life exists outside of medicine. I did try to write a mystery (What else?) featuring a physician protagonist but I ended up going off on a rant about the current state of primary care. Okay for the op-ed page, perhaps, but not for a novel. I may create a physician-sleuth someday, once I get to the point where I can take a step (dozens of steps) back from the practice of medicine and approach it objectively. As Jonathan Kellerman said (Yes, Jonathan Kellerman actually spoke to me.) at Left Coast Crime, my career gives me a lot of material to work with.  

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