Friday, September 30, 2011

Write What You Know

Hi. Kathy Cottrell here, a couple days early and representing the Last Roses of Summer in our garden. I'd like to talk about using what you know in your writing.
Having attended a number of writers conferences over the years, I've had the privilege to sit in on any number of workshops, the Craft Tract being a personal favorite. One which stood out the loudest came when Nora Roberts told the audience, 'write what you know.' Coming from one of my writing heroes, the advice made sense―except I wondered how I, as a nurse [then] could ever turn a doctor into a hero. If you don't know where someone had their hands last--not an appealing thought as far as I was concerned.
Then came the day when I heard Tess Gerritsen speak at a New Jersey Romance Writers conference. She spoke about how her roots in writing dated back to her medical residency days in the ICU and observing what the nurses―whom she spoke of with great respect and affection―were reading: category romances. Wow. A physician who spoke of nurses with respect. I had to read one of her books. Let me tell you, after devouring “The Apprentice”, I was hooked. Tess Gerritsen writes what she knows!
As a teenager, living in a rural area with little to do and no way to get anywhere, I read anything I could get my hands on. I discovered a book by Frank G. Slaughter in my parents' library, a Civil War story about a female spy and a male battle surgeon. Very bloody, lots of guts, gore and suffering. Right up the alley of a fourteen year old with an over-active imagination and way too much time on her hands. Thoroughly hooked, I proceeded to sign out every one of his books from the school library as well as the library in a neighboring town. It wasn't until I later that I learned Mister Slaughter was actually a medical doctor.
This author had the ability to put me in the moment of a battlefield hospital scene, suffering right along with the physician and his patients. One of Dr. Slaughter's contemporary novels, “Daybreak” featured the trials and tribulations of a physician working in the mental health system prior to the advent of effective anti-psychotic medications when pre-frontal lobotomies and electroshock therapy were considered last ditch efforts to treat intractable psychiatric problems. Very chilling stuff for this young woman who was about to head off for three years of nursing school in―you guessed it―a state psychiatric facility. By the end of my schooling, I'd passed more Thorazine and Mellaril than any thousand nursing students―and no fresh lobotomies, thank you very much.
As a young wife with a graduate student husband and two small kids, money was tight. I lucked out when I discovered a second-hand book store which stocked copies of Robert K. Tannenbaum's legal thrillers featuring Assistant District Attorneys Butch Karp and Marlene Ciampi. With each book I learned about the steps in the legal process, evidence that can degrade over time or be lost by dumb luck or stupid accident, “eye witnesses” who don't see everything, and a how-to manual for criminals who want to beat the system. It came as no surprise when I learned this man spent many years in the Manhattan DA's office, prosecuting the worst of the worst. Writing with a sharp wit and biting sarcasm, after more than thirty years, Mr. Tannenbaum's books continue to hold my interest. Another instance of writing what one knows.
Lastly, I'd like to blow the horn for one of my nursing as well as writer heroes: Eileen Dreyer. After many years in category romance [writing as Kathleen Korbel], Eileen―an experienced ER nurse―was called up to the big leagues with a series of medical thrillers set in and around St. Louis, Missouri. Invariably her heroines are nurses with advanced training [such as Eileen herself] in forensic evidence collection, death examinations, and critical incident management. Using gut-busting humor, Eileen makes the everyday come to life and answers the question, “What if?”
In closing, I challenge any author to look at their everyday life and incorporate something they find there into his/her writing. Okay, so maybe you don't have an exciting job which includes passing bed pans or inserting suppositories, but do you have a volunteer job you really love, something that gives back ten times more than what you put in? I have a friend who volunteers at a soup kitchen, another takes calls on a domestic violence crisis line, a third takes an AA meeting into the county jail every week.
Do you have an Aunt Helen [like me] who retired from the Navy Nurse Corps at the rank of Lieutenant Commander after serving in World War II and Korea? [It was very rare in those days for a female to rise to that rank.] Do you have religious connections you might tap for a secondary character? I know an author who pumped her priest uncle for the scoop on how to get around the priest-penitent privilege and the sanctity of the confessional―and yes, under certain circumstances, it can be done.
Could where you live or go for a vacation be turned into a setting so vivid readers want to move there? One of the Class of '85 stories was set in the Adirondack Mountains. Believe me, the author nailed it.
What turns you on? How do you fill all those empty hours in your life? Do you attend festivals or state fairs? How about protest marches? Out of the Dark, a September 2010 anthology from the Last Rose line featured a protest march that turned into a riot. The author was a veteran of protests from back in the 80's and 90's; it was clear she knew what she was talking about. The description spoke to me as an editor as well as a woman.
As an editor and a reader, I have developed a second sense for what rings true and what comes from someone who took the easy way out when it came to doing his or her homework―and not all were unpublished. Do not depend on legal whodunits on the big screen or mystery illness of the week on TV for accuracy. If you want to know which shows portray accurate situations, ask someone who's already in The Biz. I myself DO NOT EVER EVER watch any of the “CSI” shows, “House”, “ER”, “Law and Order, SVU”. The shows earning the highest ratings do not always consider the truth because they would lose viewers.
In closing, I suggest that to put realism and depth in your WIP, add what you know.


Jannine Gallant said...

Love this, Kathy. I always feel I'm producing my best work when the setting is a place I know well. There's no substitute for personal experience.

Old Lady Saloon Keeper said...

Thanks, Jannine. Okay if I tell everyone you're the one who nailed the Ads in your Class of '85 story--After All These Years. It was so detailed I could smell the pine trees. I love the Ads.
You're a champ.

Margo Hoornstra said...

You can't fake realism, can you? Writing from experiences, be they good, bad or indifferent, is a great way to get the emotions roiling and into the work. Great post. We've come to expect no less from you, Kathy. Heh-heh.

Old Lady Saloon Keeper said...

another author who writes what she knows, as in Glad Tidings of the Class of '85 series which featured an executive in a large health care organization.
Thanks for stopping by, kid, and for leaving a comment.

Rolynn Anderson said...

Kathy, you are so smart and you give me hope that my ideas won't dry out. I've been around for many to plumb the depths of my memory. That might be a challenge! Rolynn

Lynne Marshall said...

I am so sorry I missed this blog earlier this month. Very interesting observations, and I must say, I agree. I write for the Last Rose of Summer line because I relate better to more mature characters. However, older heroes and heroines are a tough sell to the general public, and, though more and more over forty adults are getting e-readers, the majority of people interested in our stories don't yet have them. This makes reaching that audience demographics very difficult.

BTW, I'm a nurse by trade also, and I love Tess Gerrittson. I also will have a champagne line medical themed book out some time in 2012 from WRP. Looking forward to that.

Brenda Whiteside said...

Great blog. I love to say "be careful, you might end up in one of my books." Writing what I know - it can happen.