When I first began reading books and attending lectures on writing, I consistently heard, “write what you know.” In theory, the concept is simple. Stories incorporating personal experiences will be more believable, interesting, and engaging for readers. My problem is that “writing what you know” doesn’t always work for me.
For example, I was my mother’s miracle baby–her first successful pregnancy, her brilliant, beautiful bubbly daughter (she saw what she wanted to see). She taught me to read, was my Girl Scout leader, cheered me on in whatever activity I chose to try, and beamed with pride when I graduated from college and law school. Even if something didn’t quite go the way I hoped, my mother was there for me.
In three sentences, I’ve summarized enough of our relationship for you to realize our story lacks conflict. Although this scenario may result in a plot that is believable, I doubt that any reader except my mother would find it interesting or engaging. But, what if our interaction had been different? What if she hadn’t been loving and supportive? If she’d walked out of my life when I was a child without telling me why? What if I was raised by my father? Or, if his position in the community brought a number of surrogate mother types into my life? How would such a family dynamic impact the woman I became?
Once these questions crossed my mind, endless story possibilities intrigued me. The result of modifying “write what you know” to “write what you don’t know” became my new book, Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery. In Poker, Carrie’s mother returns to her life twenty-six years after abandoning her family. Within hours of appearing in Carrie’s office and leaving Carrie with a sealed envelope and the knowledge that she once considered killing Carrie’s father, Carrie’s mother is murdered. Compelled to find out why her mother is dead and to unravel why she abandoned her, Carrie soon learns that what she was taught to believe and the truth may very well be two different things.
Blending what I know and what I don’t raised the stakes for Poker’s plotline beyond the sentimental tale of my mother loving me. It also convinced me that the boundaries of reality often need to be challenged by writers. At least for me, failure to take the challenge means there could never be a Goldstein book or story about vampires, werewolves, the inner thoughts of animals, or a mother who doesn’t have twins.
What about you? Do you stick to reading or writing only what you know?
Judge Debra H. Goldstein is the author of Should Have Played Poker: A Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery (Five Star Publishing, April 2016) and the 2012 IPPY award-winning Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus. She also writes short stories and nonfiction. Debra serves on the national Sisters in Crime, Guppy Chapter, and Alabama Writers Conclave boards and is a MWA member. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, Joel, whose blood runs crimson.
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.