Thursday, July 10, 2014

Use Your Experience

Perhaps one of the most common arguments I hear from people about their desire to write a novel stems from their personal experiences. Every bartender I meet (and there have been many, although far fewer recently), says that someone should write a book about their bar. Certainly most of the cops I know feel they have enough experience to fill more than one book and a number of lawyers have approached me about writing both novels and nonfiction books.

This makes perfect sense. Everyone would like to take advantage of a life spent creating another career. From reporters like Carl Hiaasen who wrote many of his early novels from the perspective of a reporter or a photographer to doctors like the late Michael Palmer writing about physicians, there is a proud tradition of novelists turning their previous careers into fiction.

When I talk about experiences, I don't necessarily mean work experiences. Augusten Burroughs turned his personal experiences growing up in foster homes to the nonfiction bestseller Running With Scissors. Everyone has a set of personal experiences that are somewhat unique. Whether it's growing up in a quirky Southern family on the banks of a slow-moving creek or in a family of close but loud and tough immigrants on the streets of Brooklyn, there are comic and dramatic events everyone can weave together to create a compelling story. The trick is in the weaving. I can't tell you how many people I hear say they are going to write a book. Frankly, it's more likely they will produce a book. Writing takes focus and talent as well as a degree of study. If statistics are any indication, then it’s more likely by more than 10,000 to 1 that a book someone produces will not be compelling enough for someone to publish. For the purposes of this discussion I am still talking about traditional publishing. E-books and self-publishing are topics for the future.

You can look at the contributors to this blog and see the influences of our day-to-day lives in our books. Jackie writes a wonderful series set in England during the first world war in the 1920s.  Obviously she has a grasp of what it's like to grow up in England, but also the remarkable research tool of talking with her older relatives and friends who could give her insight to the time period. She used her personal experiences, although not necessarily her work experiences, to craft remarkable novels that are compelling and a pleasure to read.

Patty Smiley is a perfect example of using experience to put some zing into a novel. Her Tucker Sinclair is a business consultant, which gives her leeway to get involved in virtually every business but always involves crime or criminal investigation. Patty knows that the setting, Los Angeles, because she has lived there for many years and understands what goes into a criminal investigation from her work with the Los Angeles Police Department. More than that, she worked at a number of different jobs including acting which gave her the basis to create realistic backdrops to excellent novels.

Paul Levine is a very nice fella and we're very proud of him.

Obviously, not only do I try to use my police experience to provide the reader a realistic view of how an investigation might unfold but my day job has been a useful promotional tool for me as well. I've never had a publisher who didn't want to make use of the fact that I had worked in both federal law enforcement and as a law enforcement agent for the state of Florida. My earlier novels took experiences I had and generally turn them on their head. But those experiences were still the basis for the plots of the novels. Like any cop, I constantly come in contact with interesting and odd characters. I'm not confined to one area geographically or professionally.  I regularly spend long hours with corrupt politicians, drug enforcers and lawyers. (I won't say who I prefer to spend my time with.) That gives me a broad background from which to pull both characters and plot ideas. But the books don't write themselves. I spend more time reading and studying the craft of writing than I do actually writing a novel.

So when you're at your job as a dental hygienist or a airline pilot or a firefighter in Duluth, Minnesota, keep your eyes open for something out of the ordinary that makes you laugh, or cringe, or cry. Anything that makes you feel a strong emotion. That might be the basis for a novel.

Today's quote is:

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”―Flannery O'Connor


  1. I agree with "write what you know," but I like imaginative ideas as well.

    Robert Ellis

  2. Great advice, James O. I consider everything I do "writing." This past week I encountered a character-known-as-loudmouth. You know the type: monopolizing the conversation at dinner, playing bigshot, shouting, stream-of-consciousness blabbing (about himself). I took mental notes. He will appear in a novel.

    1. Patty,

      here is a mystery: WHY is this person monopolizing the conversation?

      Unless I am mistaken, I wonder if that person is dealing with sudden hearing loss? Clues; shouting and monopolizing conversations.

      When I lost my hearing suddenly, I thought I was invisible because there was no eye contact when I talked so I started yelling. Yes, I apologized for that. Once I learned other ways of communicating (e.g. waiting until I gain eye contact before I talk), there was no need for me to shout.

    2. His problem wasn't a hearing loss. He claimed to be an "expert" on everything and spent the evening bragging that he was a special ops jungle fighter, wine expert, chef name it. If I had to guess, I'd say he was insecure and tried to be a "big shot" to overcome these feelings. At least, that's how I would construct a character in a book. I'd make up a motivation and a backstory. He'd also had too much of that wine he knew so well.

  3. James O. Born7/10/2014 1:33 PM

    I call that character "Paul."

  4. James, my writing teachers often advised us to write what we knew.I always am "writing" like Patty. Please forgive me for a little fact check here. Although the first book starts in 1929 with flashbacks to the years before and during the first World War, Jackie's series is set in England during the 1930s, not 1920s.

    Writing about what you know resonates with me, I was thinking about Alexander McCall Smith's series.

    I get what you meant about writing and producing a book. Although I've been told that I could write a book by people who think my life is unique, I believe your heart has to be into writing the book. If I was going to write a novel, I want to write as well as authors whom I admire.

    When I was a kid, my 4th grade class had to write a sentence for each new vocabulary word we learned. I remember that sometimes I would make up stories with all of the words on the vocabulary list. Hmmm...perhaps I could try that again....