Wednesday, November 16, 2011


By Stephanie Suesan Smith

It is a cliché that when an author has a new book released those around her rush to read it and see if they are a character in the book.  It is a cliché because it is often true. The muse doesn’t throw a plot into our brains using things totally unfamiliar to us.  Write what you know,” we are told.  That is correct, up to a point. The saying doesn't imply you should spill everything you know.

The caveat applies because sometimes what we know is too emotionally laden to allow us to write objectively.  Although we pour our blood, sweat, and tears into our writing, we must edit ruthlessly and eliminate anything that does not further the plot.  Characters or situations we are too close to make editing hard.

Recently my parents and I were discussing a book I had read by a well-known author.  When asked for my opinion of the book, I replied, “It's a spite book.  I meant the book was obviously a plot taken from a relatively recent and still painful event in the author’s life and had real venom in it. 

Spite doesn't
serve authors
I do not know if the book was written to exorcise the event or retaliate, but the book was not very good.  Spite doesn’t allow us to be objective and know when the plot is thin, worn, or just needs to go somewhere else.

Erma Bombeck,
American humorist
who mentioned her
family in books
and columns
Things, or people, we love can also cloud our judgment.  Erma Bombeck was a famous humor author who wrote about her domestic disasters in columns and books.  Sometimes, her family objected to the things she wrote, considering them too personal.  She always replied that if they didn’t like what she wrote they could get their own columns and write what they wanted.  Fortunately for us, most of our loved ones do not write humor columns.

Thinking about how what we write will impact family and friends is a consideration.  If you model a character after someone then have the character do something evil, the real person might suffer repercussions.  Better to make up your villains, or at least model them after someone you do not have to live with every day.

We love our pets
 but don't gush
 in print
 Love can make us paint a hero or heroine as perfect or gush over a dog or cat. Somehow these emotion-laden characters always come out as two dimensional figures that do not ring true.  I have a drawer full of dog stories that are just too mushy to use.  Many romance authors have similar drawers with heroines that are, as my mother puts it, “too stupid to live.”  These are like the kids in horror movies that open the door to investigate the strange noise even after seeing a friend eaten.

Writing what you know is good advice, but in-depth research to supplement your knowledge pays off.  When you know something backwards and forwards, your writing will have detail and depth that someone who has only a cursory knowledge of the same subject cannot match. Be careful, however, when writing about emotionally laden things in your own life as part of your character’s life. 

Vengeance and adoration are for poetry, not for plots.  The reader, especially the reader who knows your writing well, can tell when those emotions are too heavily involved in your books.  They detract from the plot and jar the reader out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Too much of that, and you lose your readers.

Stephanie Suesan Smith, Ph.D. avoids these problems by writing plotless nonfiction on gardening, woodworking, photography, and other subjects.  The brave can read her website, Information Central.


Caroline Clemmons said...

Stephanie, welcome to my blog. I enjoyed your post. Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

Though i know i'm not a writer (too much research, not enough reading) i enjoyed your post. They always help me in forming my reviews. Thanks

Bookie said...

This was a very interesting post...always a problem for me as I don't write hurtful things but people do slip into my stories and poems!

Leah St. James said...

I had a mug with that saying. I kept it at work and when people annoyed me, I'd simply lift the cup and show them the message. :-) We'd both laugh, but the truth is, I AM using some of them! :-)

Jacquie Rogers said...

What astute observations about modeling a character too much after someone you know. I learned my lesson on that early on when the characters really didn't turn out like the real people at all.

Yes, I can always tell when a story is a thinly veiled catharsis. And I don't like it. Now I know why--because the plot or characters were compromised. Good to know for future reference.

Thank you, Stephanie!

Stephanie Suesan Smith, Ph.D. said...

@Caroline Thank you for the welcome. I enjoy coming by and saying hello to you and your readers.

@Marianne Glad you enjoyed the post.

@Bookie Yes, it is a problem sometimes because even if you do not think you are writing something hurtful, the person involved may take exception to what you wrote.

@Leah St.James Mom and I have joked about that for years. Towns are another problem -- people get upset when you rearrange the geography to suit the plt.

@Jacquie Rogers Glad I could validate your experience and name it. Always nice when you get independent validation of an idea.