Writing What You Know

I’m en route to the Left Coast Crime Conference where I’ll be on a panel to talk about law enforcement research. This brings to mind the oft-debated topic of writing what you know. You know the one, whether writers should write based on their own experiences versus stories based on research. You might expect me to favor the “write what you know” camp, given I’m a real-life cyber crime fighter who writes cyber crime fiction. And you’d be right. But not in the way you expect.

A few years back, I wrote one really great scene in an otherwise “meh” novel unlikely to ever see the light of day. The story wasn’t bad, I just managed to squeeze in just about every trope we’re told to avoid as beginners – opened with the main character waking up, a flashback in the first 10 pages, that sort of thing. The one really great scene was loosely based on a real series of events in my childhood that I heavily adapted. Once I opened the floodgate of my memories, I experienced a surprising amount of recall. I tapped into heartbreak as seen through the lens of my 7-year-old self to write that particular chapter.

When I finished writing the scene, I cried. Beta readers did, too. They declared it the best pages I had ever written. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the enormity of what I’d accomplished. Authenticity.

It’s kind of like watching the audition rounds of “American Idol.” Stay with me, here, there really is a correlation. Watching the singers perform, it’s easy to spot those who sing from the heart – places of great loves and great loss – as opposed to the singers who may hit all the right technical notes but leave the judges feeling nothing.

That place of heartbreaking emotion is where I intentionally go now when I write. I’ve learned how to get past the fear of leaving my vulnerabilities on the page and tap into my well of experiences. Not just the big emotions, but the little ones, too. The triumph of getting a seat on a crowded subway train during rush hour. The annoyance of waiting for a table at a restaurant when I’ve got a reservation (I know, first world problems, but still…). The terror that engulfed every aspect of my life when my partner battled an illness that took a life-threatening turn. I work hard to recall the visceral memories in vivid, sometimes horrifying, detail. I know I’ve succeeded when it takes me hours, or sometimes days, to shake the feelings I’ve surfaced.

So, I’m a great believer in writing what you know. But, to me, that means striving to write relatable experiences of being human.

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