Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Write Who You Know


Terry here, My topic this week: Write what you know. How has your life shaped your writing? And how has your writing shaped your life? 

 \My mother-in-law had a cartoon at her desk that I got a kick out of. The caption read, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know. And who do I know? I know YOU.” 

 How does that relate to the topic? I don’t necessarily write what I know, I write who I know. I know the characters who inhabit the books I write. I “know” them as if I had met them—which, in a way, I have. I populate my books with mash-ups of people I have known throughout my life, and especially those I knew when I was a child.

I laugh when relatives say they recognize a character in one of my books: “Oh, that’s Aunt Dorothy.” Or “I know who that is: it’s Dr. P.” In fact, there are only a few characters I’ve ever taken directly from people I know, and no one has ever recognized them. Or at least they never said so. 

My life has shaped my writing through the people I’ve met. They have become the characters I work with in my books. I know a lot of people start their novels with plot (and that may be the smart thing to do. I always struggle with plot). But I usually start with “What would happen if something happened to X character?” In my last book, A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary, for example, I was thinking about what to write, and I realized I’d never put Loretta front and center.

Loretta was always the Greek chorus. About that time, I read an article about older people (especially women) being scammed in on-line dating sites. So, I thought, what if Loretta got the idea to join a dating site for seniors, and something happened to her? What if she was in grave danger? What if she disappeared? And the story was born.

The other way in which my life has shaped my writing is that I listened to the stories men and women in my extended family told. My mother told me of her cousin who died of pneumonia after his parents locked him out of the house in the rain and cold. Here’s the thing: I don’t even know if the story was true. Another story: My grandmother told about one of her cousins who would come to visit and complain about everything. She always wore white gloves because she was worried about germs. She also talked incessantly about her health and how she could scarcely eat anything. My dear little grandmother’s eyes danced when she said, “And she ate everything in sight!” 

My grandfather told the eerie tale of meeting an actual boy who grew up wild in the woods (raised by wolves, anyone?) He said he met the boy at a country store. He was mute and totally wild. He lived by the kindness of strangers. True story? Who knows? But they primed me for thinking up stories. 

Many of my plots have come from either family tales like those, or from events I’ve witnessed myself: the cousin who was a secret artist; the young boy who went off to war and was gravely wounded, came home and then disappeared to California; the uncle who his mother suspected killed his first wife; the real story of a family that was murdered. The people who inhabit the stories come from family and people I’ve met over the years. 

 Scenes from family visits as a child have stuck with me. Visiting my mother and daddy’s relatives was always fascinating to me. My mother had an aunt who dipped snuff. Nasty habit, and the sight of her spitting snuff into an old coffee can will always be with me. She was also a bigot and a gossip. A character is born! 

 As for how writing has shaped my life, it’s hard for me to quantify, because it has been an integral part of my life since I was a child. I was always sneaking off from the things I should be doing to either read or write. I was a computer programmer/analyst for several years, and during lunch instead of gabbing with co-workers, I’d sneak off to my car to write. I was never one to “go to lunch.” It would interfere with writing. 

 My life was shaped anew when I saw my first novel in print. I actually felt like a new person, as if the old me had been sloughed off like a discarded skin. One of the strangest manifestations of this is that I became completely at ease doing public speaking. I’d always been terrified of speaking in public, but that changed. So even though that isn’t actually the “writing” part, it was a change. 

 The thing that has run through all my life, shaping it, is listening to stories and making up new ones about people. Real people and imagined people. I hope it never goes away.


Catriona McPherson said...

That is fascinating - the fact that you were re-born as a public speaker upon publication. I have never heard that before. I was a master procrastinator and imposter-syndrome sufferer as an academic and those traits vanished when I started writing. My PhD Supervisor (major professor) was mystified to hear that I had written 100K words unbidden in a year. He used to tell me to take a thesis chapter away and expand it, and I'd bring it back shorter, out of embarrassment.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Write who you know. It works that way for me too, Terry, or at least I write about the characters I come to know. And I start out the same way, thinking what would happen if this happened to this type of character.

Jo Perry said...

These/your stories and the people they belong embody the pathos, weirdness, desperation and misfortune of being human and make mere plots seem superfluous.

Josh Stallings said...

I love this post. I really love your recognition that family stories may not be true, and it doesn’t matter. A good story is a good story!

Susan C Shea said...

Such a rich personal history and setting to draw from. Your series always sounds authentic in dialogue, setting, tone. You really nailed it with Samuel Craddock!

Terry said...

Because I was wrapped up in Bouchercon, I'm just now reading these comments, so if you commented and hoped for a reply, sorry it's just coming in.
Gabriel, my family was full of eccentrics. I could go on at length. Catriona, I love the idea that your procrastination vanished when you went to your true vocation. I've often wondered at your ability to churn out wicked good books, so I'm not surprised that your prof was gobsmacked. And Josh, for sure it was a mystery whether the stories were true. I loved hearing the same story from different members of the family. Never the same.