August 4th, 2014

Writing What You Know Is The Best Revenge

Shannon Baker

I write mysteries. I don’t write sci fi/fantasy because my mind is tethered to the real world too tightly to make the great leaps required to build whole new worlds. And by tethered, I mean, I’m not that imaginative. Write what you know, they say. It’s good advice that makes creating fiction so much easier than if you had to make it all up from scratch.

When we moved to Flagstaff in 2007, there was a huge controversy waging over pumping treated waste water onto a ski area on the San Francisco Peaks just outside of town. Those peaks are sacred to several local tribes and feature in their creation stories. It’s where the tribes collect plants and herbs and perform vital ceremonies.

Tainted MountainThis situation seemed ripe for a murder mystery. I “borrowed” from real life and pretty much used the whole set up for Tainted Mountain. I jumped into it, researching and asking questions. It didn’t take me long to discover the Hopi tribe. Destitute and tiny, this tribe who makes its home on three mesas north of Winslow, believe they are responsible for the balance of the entire world. They view themselves as a microcosm of the world and what happens with them will be played out in full forces over the planet. I swear I didn’t make up any Hopi stuff. All of the weird, magical, amazing bits in my books are from real life research.

I was hooked. I started playing the “what if” game to build the plot. Who would be the most affected by this fight? Aha, the ski resort owner. Write what you know, right? I made Nora a business woman, even though accounting is not exactly a career path littered with excitement and action. I figured we wouldn’t be following our unfortunate heroine, Nora, as she built spreadsheets and created projection analyses.

About this time, I landed a day job in my new town. I was hired as an accountant at The Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental non-profit whose mission is to protect and restore landscapes on the Colorado Plateau. My position, as unlikely as it sounds, was finance manager and administrator of the Trust’s cattle operation on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Like Nora, my job was dry and boring. Oh, but the perks!

As with any good book, my time at the Trust was full of conflict. I never got used to the ebb and flow of finances at a non-profit. However, I loved working with inspired, passionate, creative people in those amazing landscapes.

At lunchtime, while I reheated my leftover beef stew, and they’d quaff some kind of green, lumpy juice they’d made from CFS shares, we talked and laughed and I learned about botany, biology, hydrology and Native American culture. They introduced me to quinoa, for which I am forever grateful.

They taught me about composting and cold frame gardening. My world view expanded as they shared their travel experiences and knowledge of strange and beautiful places. One woman spent weekends in the southern Arizona desert assisting illegal immigrants. Another woman took me cycling up Snowbowl Road and through Page Springs outside of Sedona. I reached new heights of happy hour accomplishment with another. The ranch manager took me to places on the North Rim that few people ever get to see. Those field trips—breathtaking!

I was in the early stages of plotting Tainted Mountain when I started at the Trust and quickly decided Nora needed to be an environmentalist. That would create big internal conflict for her and I had great examples of earnest and dedicated people I worked with. Using my new work situation, I again followed the “write what you know” advice.

When book two, Broken Trust, rolled around, Nora was out of a job. By this time, I’d left Flagstaff and was back in my capitalist comfort zone. Sticking with what I know, I let Nora find a position with a non-profit. I got to indulge my writerly urge for revenge on distasteful ex-coworkers. Nora steps into an organization full of characters 18126437that sprang from my mind…almost. I changed their genders and positions, mashed up traits and distributed them to various characters. I got to kill off a couple of them, make fun of others, and laud some, all to the background of this quirky world of Other People’s Money. I even set Loving Earth Trust, Nora’s new employer, in a farm house eerily similar to the one in which I worked. Except the fictional one is in Boulder Canyon instead of Flagstaff. That was the handiest part, since I knew the place often smelled like burnt toast, how the heater sounds when it kicks on and off, and the creepiness of being in the rambling structure alone at night.

Am I worried one of my old co-workers will read Broken Trust and be offended or sue me? Not at all. I’ve changed enough details and made stuff up so there’s no issue of libel. As to the people coming after me because I present them in a bad light: They’ll never recognize themselves. That’s the way it works. They don’t see themselves as despicable. But the real reason I’m not worried is that I’m pretty sure none of them will read it.

What about you? Do you write what you know? Have you used real characters or situations in your writing?

Headshot IMG_3189 Shannon Baker writes the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, a fast-paced mix of murder, environmental issues and Hopi Indians published by Midnight Ink. Broken Trust, released March 2014, takes place in Boulder, CO. A lover of western landscapes, she can often be found backpacking, skiing, kayaking, cycling, or just playing lizard in the desert.  Tainted Mountain, the first in the series is set in Flagstaff, AZ and is a New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards finalist. Shannon is Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2014 Writer of the Year. She serves on the board of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and is a member of SinC and MWA.

Shannon’s Website

33 comments to Writing What You Know Is The Best Revenge

  • Shannon – way to use research to add new experiences and sparkle to your life!
    I do the same – never been on a bull (though I’d do it if I were just 20 years younger!)
    but the research is fascinating – and the cowboy butts in chaps? Oh yeah, the perks!

    Your book sounds fascinating, and though I don’t read mysteries normally, I love the setting and the set up – I’m going to buy it now! Thanks for blogging with us!

  • Love this post. Almost like looking over my own shoulder. Two of my novels are rooted in true incidents, the occult and the legal worlds. You gave good solid adivice. Thanks for sharing your experience and your wisdom.

  • I write historicals but I think to a point we all write what we know esp. when it comes character emotions and characteristics. Great blog.

  • I write historical novels, but I do use my background a lot when I write. I’m a Montanan girl, and use my farm life and horses and a lot of other events into my writing. Of course, we used combines and tractors to help with the acres of barley that needed harvesting, but my grandfather had shown my brother and I how to harvest with a scythe, my grandmother used to make her own soap, all sorts of things I touch on in my writing.

  • Laura, I spent 20 years living in the Nebraska Sandhills and now I’m working on a series set there. I wouldn’t ride a bull either, but I’m not opposed to killing off a loud-mouthed barrel racer. That revenge thing, you know.

  • Bob, I love the occult. I’m interested to see how you mash that with the legal world.

    • Actually the concept is more in keeping with law enforcement and stands alone as a journey into the occult in which all rituals, save one, are accurate and all incidents involving law enforcement, except for the climax, are accurate. I mix true life incidents with my own creations in which a deputy sheriff’s daughter is kidnapped by a drug lord.

  • Sharla and Lani, one of the first books I completed (and left in a file) was a historical set in western Nebraska in the late 1880s. I love researching the history. Most of it was based on a memoir written by a great, great, maybe even great uncle.

  • Laura Kamala

    Shannon, what great advice, I’m going to follow in your footsteps. Writing as therapy. 🙂

  • barbarabettis1

    Smart, smart writers, to be able to turn ideas from real life into fiction!! As an author of medieval, I find my settings s a little differently. But people’s actions and reactions never change 🙂

  • Thanks for a fascinating view into another writers mind. I lived in the southwest for several years,I’ must check out your books!

    • The southwest is an amazing place. Deserts, mountains, so many strange things a high plains native, such as myself, doesn’t know about! I am reading Johnny Shaw’s “Dove Season” and his opening paragraphs really describe the desert perfectly!

  • Orly Konig Lopez

    Thanks for posting with us, Shannon. Your settings sounds fascinating, will have to go check out your books!

  • Shannon, what a lovely sharing of your writing process and so totally engaging. I actually write fantasy/sci-fi and have hard time keeping the fantastical out of my more reality based books because I find reality so constricting. To learn that you actually brushed with the occult while dealing with reality was somewhat comforting. Thanks again for sharing.

  • I don’t think I write characters from real life, but if I were hypnotized and interrogated, I’d probably reveal that I do write from real life subconsciously.

    By the way, I know someone who used to work on the Hopi Reservation as a health care provider.

  • I’ll bet your friend has some great stories. Is he/she Hopi?

  • I tried writing what I know and it fell flat. Mostly because if I’ve done it, I’m not interested anymore. Now, writing what I read, that I love! Tweeted and shared.

  • Fae Rowen

    Well, Shannon, I definitely write what I don’t know. Yes, science fiction complete with space battles, lasers and faster-than-light travel. I’d much rather make stuff up than research. But then, I admit that my mind can be somewhat twisted at times.

  • Good advice. I keep getting caught up in the trap of “if I like sci-fi or post apocalypse fiction, then that’s what I should write.” What I should do is stand back and let people who are good at that genre do it. My own life has been so bizarre that nobody would believe half of it. That is what I should be writing about 🙂

  • Oh, I do love books with a Native American aspect theme! I write paranormal romances for Harlequin. Nope, I’ve never been a mermaid like my characters but the emotional journey – yeah, that’s all mine.

    And Flagstaff is my husband’s dream town. 🙂

    Much success to you!

  • Hi Shannon, Congrats on the WOTY award. You deserve it! I write what I know, but it’s all set in the past and I don’t know how I know it. Ancestral DNA, I guess. Great post. I enjoyed it.