I’ve often heard it said that you should “write what you know,” and I’ve been thinking about how much we use what we know in our writing. So often, when I go back and reread what I’ve written, little things pop in my manuscripts that I recognize are a part of my own life.
Sometimes it’s people I know—there’s a good chance Aunt Bette in my newest WIP is a lot like a certain sassy member of my extended family. There’s a lot of my friend Connie in Julie Miles’s irreverent comments, but also in Carrie Reilly’s orderly life, and if you knew my kid, you’d definitely hear him in Jack—the brilliant musical prodigy in Once More From the Top. So yeah, my characters get some of their traits from people in my real life and even some from me. A friend once told me that she had a hard time with the first fifty pages or so of my first novel, Rule Number One, because the heroine talked like me and she couldn’t separate Katy Ruth Gilligan and Nan Reinhardt. Well, the heroine is figment of my imagination, so that she would sometimes talk like me shouldn’t be a surprise. It didn’t stop my friend from finishing and enjoying that book and all my others, and if she saw a little of me in any others, she never mentioned it.
Sometimes, my characters seem to do things that I do or that people in my life do. Sophie Russo in The Summer of Second Chances is a freelance editor—career that I know quite a bit about because . . . well, I’m a freelance editor. It made research really easy! And frankly, because I edit a lot of computer books and know a lot of folks in publishing, it wasn’t hard to invent Henry Dugan’s career as a publisher and writer. I got the idea for the women’s shelter in Sex and the Widow Miles from my sisters volunteering for an agency that helps homeless families. In the in-progress fourth book of the Women of Willow Bay series, Julie's dear friend, Sarah, is escaping an abusive ex-husband, something a friend of mine went through--her advice was invaluable as I created Sarah.
I love Michigan—if I wasn’t so firmly entrenched in Indiana, I’d live in Michigan in a heartbeat. One of those little towns along the shore of Lake Michigan would be just about perfect. My mom loved Michigan, too, and we spent nearly every weekend camping up there when I was growing up, so I come by my love of the Great Lakes State quite naturally. Mostly, I love lakes, so my books all take place around fresh water, pretty much around Lake Michigan, I just realized, because my other WIP happens in northern Indiana—just a block or two from Lake Michigan, which means there will be long beach walks and characters dipping their toes in the icy water on warm summer days.
Dialogue often comes from pieces of conversations I’ve had with friends or family or even strangers. I collect words and phrases and ideas from every situation I’m in, even every film or TV show I watch, every book or magazine I read. Don’t we all do that? My family has dozens of movie lines and book quotes that mean something to only us. “Weird, Margaret,” is a phrase my sister and I say when something seems odd to either of us. It’s from our childhood—a line from the Dennis the Menace comic strip. After forty-some years of living with me, Husband says it now, too. Lines from old movies are an everyday part of life in our family. Heck, we’ve been known to have entire conversations made up of nothing but movie lines.
All of it—conversations, situations, places, what we read, what we watch, people we spend time with, people we know well, and people we’ve just met—if you’re a storyteller, a piece of every experience in your life will eventually find its way into a story. It might be so subtle, you aren’t even aware of it creeping into your writing, or it might be something so significant that the only way you can process it is to write about it. . .