“Write what you know” is a storied piece of advice so often given that fiction writers are probably sick of hearing it. Yet, like most clichés, it exists for a reason—that reason being its profound practicality and common sense.
This guest post is by Michele Campbell. Campbell is a graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Law School, worked at a prestigious Manhattan law firm before spending eight years fighting crime as a federal prosecutor in New York City.
Her novel, IT’S ALWAYS THE HUSBAND, was published by St. Martin’s Press in May 2017.
Photo credit: Sigrid Estrada
I adore historical fiction and aspire to one day write a book set in Tudor England or in Virginia during the Civil War. Yet, I also know that doing good research is extremely challenging and time-consuming, and what’s more, research will only get you so far. As an author, you still need to bring yourself and your inner life to bear on your material in order to build a world that speaks to the reader.
The flip-side of “write what you know” is another familiar aphorism about writing—“all novels are autobiographies.” Taken together, these two old war-horses point to a secret truth that all fiction writers understand: No matter the genre we work in, or the heights of imagination and inventiveness to which our stories soar, we are always, at some level, writing about ourselves.
This is especially true for me, because I’m a former prosecutor, and I write crime novels. I also have the good fortune to live in a quaint New England college town, and my new novel, It’s Always the Husband, is set in a fictional quaint New England college town. If the three building blocks of novels are plot, character and setting, then I’ve drawn two out of the three (plot and setting) directly from my personal experience. Some might say that makes me lazy, but I think it makes me smart, and not because I’m trying to avoid doing research. (Though maybe I am, just a little.)
There is an amazing alchemy to the process of writing a novel. Paul Simon once said that the process of songwriting, when it’s really working, feels like taking dictation, and to me, writing fiction is the same. But that magical process of letting go, and allowing fictional characters to speak through me, can only happen if I have the sort of complete and intimate knowledge of their reality that comes from having lived it myself.
Let’s start with the background that I bring to my fiction. I had the privilege of serving as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, New York for eight years, specializing in narcotics and gang cases. My office had jurisdiction over the ports and the airports that service New York City, and we got all the biggest drug cases. I’m not talking about some kid selling baggies of dope on a street corner, but the largest and most violent drug cartels in the world. The job was non-stop adrenaline, including overseeing arrests and search warrants, going to court, trying cases, and working directly with DEA, FBI, and other investigative agencies.
Now, you might ask, what does this have to do with writing a novel about three freshman roommates at an Ivy League college who become fast friends, then frenemies, and then one of them gets murdered? Kind of everything, because a crime is a crime.
It’s Always the Husband moves back and forth in time between the three roommates’ freshman year at (fictional) Carlisle College, and the moment, twenty years later, where the lifeless body of one of them has washed up on the riverbank downstream from their old stomping grounds. The first half of the book tells the story of the intense, toxic relationship that forms among these three profoundly different young women when they’re thrown together in the pressure-cooker environment of an Ivy League college. A terrible tragedy at the end of freshman year leaves them with a dangerous secret. Twenty years later, older but perhaps no wiser, they return to the scene of the crime, and one of them turns up dead. Then the police descend, and that’s where my prior professional life comes in.
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I worked a lot of cases in my old job, and I knew a lot of cops. The hard-boiled police chief with a soft spot for the victim whose investigation dominates the second half of my book is drawn from my interactions with real-life law enforcement. Everything from his mindset to his personal life to the specific procedures he follows (or doesn’t) in collecting evidence comes from that kernel of real-life experience.
This police chief is convinced the husband did it. Well, he has good reason to be, since the vast majority of murders are committed by friends or family members of the victim. In my professional experience, the cops generally identify the killer right off the bat, and the investigation is just the slow, laborious process of gathering evidence to prove it in court. (That’s not to say that the husband did it in this book, where the best friends are also suspects. You’ll have to read it to find out.)
Channeling this character, with his prejudices and his flashes of insight, was made possible by years of real-world experience. Fiction, brought to you by reality.
The same thing is true for the setting of my novel. Anybody can drive through the college town where I live and describe its physical setting. But having spent a decade there, I understand its life. The way the institution of the college influences the town. The fact that everybody knows each other. The concept that privacy is hard to come by and secrets are hard to keep.
This knowledge seeps into the pages of my novel and gives it, I hope, an authenticity that goes deeper than simply describing the color of an oak tree in autumn or the way the ivy grows on the old brick dormitories.
What advice does this suggest for other writers? Simply to make sure that there are aspects of your book that you know to the bones. Maybe there is a character inspired by your own mother. Or maybe you are a devoted baker, and your heroine is a pastry chef. It can be a place, an occupation, a way of life.
The point is this: Knowing something profoundly and deeply will free you to write about it in an engaging and authentic way, and in an original voice. Aspiring authors sometimes fear sharing the premise of their work in progress, on the grounds that somebody might “steal their idea.” I don’t think anybody should worry about this. The fact is, if you write from your own life, only you can write your book.
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