Mar 2, 2022
SHOTS Crime & Thriller Ezine reporter Ayo Onatade
Most aspiring novelists, at some point in their early years, were likely told by a well-meaning teacher that it’s best to “write what you know.” Inevitably, shortly thereafter, some other influential authority came along and condemned that advice as didactic and unimaginative garbage.
Among writers, it’s a somewhat divisive topic. Kazuo Ishiguro has said, “’Write about what you know’ is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. It encourages people to write a dull autobiography. It’s the reverse of firing the imagination and potential of writers.”
Personally, I harbor no malice towards people who think clinging to this “write what you know” advice is cowardly. However, it’s the only thing that works for me. George R.R Martin can write about dragons and frozen zombies in Game of Thrones and deliver it so evocatively it’s as if he’s seen it all personally. I, on the other hand, struggle to describe a café where I’ve never had a coffee. I wish I had that unique talent to bring something completely unknown to life, but as I publish my third novel, I expect that I will always return to writing what I know.
For this reason, I relate to this quote by Zoë Heller: “The injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination.”
This accurately describes my approach to new projects. Even though I start with “what I know,” I then proceed to do research and employ the darkest parts of my imagination. As a writer of psychological thrillers, this process usually means that I concoct a story based on some chapter of my life and then ultimately look for a sneaky way to kill off a few of the characters. Understandably, this makes some people close to me a bit uncomfortable, wondering if they might be stabbed, shot, held under water until they drown, or pushed off a ledge in my next book.
My writing process--though never exactly the same--usually follows a similar trajectory. For example, in my new book THE LYING CLUB, I knew that I was fascinated with the idea of writing about my experience as a high-school and college soccer player. I later became a coach at a private school in New York City. That world of young athletes and coaches was still intriguing to me, and I could hear the characters talking to one another in my head. Next, I looked for ways to place these real-life elements into a plot-driven whodunnit-style mystery. Once I started writing, I folded in the juicy fiction; lies, jealousy, betrayal and abuse, which culminate in a revenge murder.
Looking back, this is the process that has worked for me repeatedly. My second novel THE IDEAL WIFE began as a memoir about being in love with an ex-soldier who suffered from PTSD. Over a period of years, I transformed it into a fictional psychological thriller by taking many liberties to create suspense and terror. My first book THE MAKING OF JUNE started as a personal story about moving to Eastern Europe as a young, idealistic newlywed. It eventually was published as a literary drama about an American couple who fall apart in a foreign country, finding excitement and ultimately love, with others. These novels started with worlds, emotions and characters that were familiar, intriguing and important to me. These were stories that were inside me, begging to be told.
I truly wish I had the amazing and enviable ability to write about dragons and zombies. My kids and my husband would absolutely love it. I do think, though, that I will have to leave that to the writers who find that it comes easily. For me, what comes naturally and what I feel enthusiastic about, is retelling, and in a sense reliving, the most meaningful moments of my own life—- with entertaining twists. My new book, tentatively titled THE CONSERVATORY, is based on the time I spent navigating the competitive shark tank atmosphere of the film school I attended in Los Angeles. Inevitably, some bloody bodies will be left lying around the campus by the end.
Raymond Carver said, “Of course, you have to know what you’re doing when you turn your life’s stories into fiction. You have to be immensely daring, very skilled and imaginative and willing to tell everything on yourself. You’re told time and again when you’re young to write about what you know, and what do you know better than your own secrets?”
In my experience, writing what you know can be cathartic. Taking an axe to it and turning it into something wholly different and sinister can be disturbing but strangely euphoric. I’ve told many secrets in my books--but when confronted with them I can always shrug, smile and say, “It’s just fiction.”