Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
May 31, 2024

Put Your Life into Your Writing

by Eldred Bird

Writing in a pub with a beer

One piece of advice a lot of writers (including me) get tired of hearing is to write what you know. It’s always felt very limiting to me. I’m more of a “do the research and write what you want to know” kind of person.

But there’s another way to look at this piece of advice. Rather than seeing the statement as restricting the scope of your writing, why not view it as a way of breathing life into it?

The one thing we know best is our own lives. We all have knowledge specific to our experiences, be it from jobs, hobbies, or relationships. I think write what you know means to draw on this knowledge to bring more realism to your work and make a deeper connection with the readers, no matter what you’re writing.

How do we accomplish this? Let’s look at a few examples.

Our Jobs

One place we all acquire knowledge that can serve our stories well is from our chosen careers. You need look no further than crime drama and police procedural novels to find authors who have made their work experience pay off in words.

A prime example is former LAPD detective Joseph Wambaugh. His novels The Choirboys, The New Centurions, The Blue Knight, and a whole host of others are stellar examples of an author’s day job taking their writing to a higher level, adding grit, color and realism to the stories and characters. This sets him apart from the average crime writer.

Of course, you don’t have to be a cop to write cop drama. Michael Connelly was a crime reporter before creating the Harry Bosch series. The insight gained from his reporting led him to construct one of the most successful modern detective series on the market today.

Think of your own career path.

What special knowledge and skills have you gained over the years that you can mine for plot points, character traits, and background color that can bring the reader deeper into your stories? Maybe some work-related incident stands out as a possible plot twist to complicate your MC’s journey or offer them a creative solution to a problem.

Our Hobbies

While our jobs can give us a good knowledge base to pull details from, so can our hobbies. Hobbies are something we do by choice and for our own enjoyment so if you’re anything like me, you get even more excited about learning and applying these new skills because it’s something we’ve elected to do.

Our characters are no different.

What they choose to do in their spare time can add dimension and depth. One word of warning — don’t give them an interesting hobby if it isn’t going to come into play down the road. It should either get them into trouble or out of it, depending on how it’s used to further the plot.

My main character, James, likes playing with new technology, so I used my hobby of flying drones in the third James McCarthy novel, Cold Karma, to add layers not only to the plot, but the main character himself. My fascination with computers and cryptography also came into play in that book.

Consider how your own hobbies might work to add to the characters and plot of your story. Is there a particular skill you’ve developed that could elevate your tale? Even a failed attempt at something new can add dimension and maybe throw a monkey wrench in the works to create tension.

Real World Locations

Where a story takes place can be just as important as the characters and plot. Often location becomes another character, so the better you know it, the better you can integrate it into your novel. This is why I like to use locations I’ve personally been to whenever possible.

My James McCarthy series is based in Arizona because I know the territory intimately. I’ve lived here for 50 years and have explored a great lot of the state. The landscape is diverse with everything from major metropolitan areas to deserts, tall pine forests, and mountains that soar to over 12,000 feet. And the people are just as diverse as the landscapes they inhabit.

While online satellite maps and street views are now available to help research locations, nothing beats experiencing these places yourself. Things like the climate, the people, and the general feel of a location don’t translate well to maps. Firsthand experience gives you a much better chance of bringing the true character of a location to life.

Sometimes you want to fictionalize locations

Having been to a location also gives you a better idea of what not to include in your descriptions. In the second James McCarthy book, Catching Karma, James ventures into the Bradshaw Mountains north of Phoenix.

The location he’s heading into is real only to a point. Beyond that point, I fictionalize his travels. This is for the safety of any readers who might decide to check the area out for themselves. There are a lot of abandoned mines in the area, and I didn’t want to lead anyone into a dangerous situation.

Safety is something to keep in mind when you use real-world locales.

Think of the places you’ve been and how they might impact your characters and their quests. Try to bring your readers into the scene in a way that allows them to share in your own experience with the location.

People We Know

This one almost goes without saying, as most of us already base a lot of our characters on people we know, or even ourselves. Sometimes it’s intentional, other times it comes from somewhere deep in our subconscious mind. Either way, we naturally tend toward the practice.

Most of my characters are an amalgamation of people I’ve met, some long-term acquaintances and others who made a lasting impression as they briefly passed through my airspace. Each of them had some quality that made them stand out from the crowd. Mixing some of those qualities into a single body has the potential to create a memorable, if not familiar character.

One word of caution when basing your characters on real people…

Make sure you don’t make it too obvious. This is especially important when casting your antagonists. Most people won’t like discovering that they are the villain in a story. As for the ones who do like it…well, that’s probably what made them stand out in the first place.

Our Emotional Experiences

Sharing our emotional experiences can be tough. Working them into our writing can be just as hard, as it requires us to relive them. In the end, however, it can be worth it. Using your own emotional experiences as a template for your character’s reactions will lend depth and truth to scenes and draw the reader in.

I used this in Killing Karma, the first James McCarthy novel. The only memory James has of his father is actually the earliest memory I have from my childhood. It’s the only memory I have of my uncle, the late husband of my favorite aunt. I was about two years old at the time.

James recalled his earliest memory in the small, bright living room. It was a memory of his father. He could see a picture in his mind—just a snapshot frozen in time.

He recalled a large, dark haired man reaching down to pick him up. The man appeared so big and imposing, but his warm smile disarmed James and melted away any fears. He remembered the feeling clearer than the face . . . a feeling of warmth, and of love.

Be it a happy memory like this one or something more painful, pulling from your own experiences can add an element of reality that will help the reader connect with the characters on a deeper level and feel what they feel.

Final Thoughts

In the final analysis, maybe write what you know doesn’t mean “restrict your stories to what you’ve personally experienced,” but rather using those experiences as an ingredient to add flavor to your writing.

When we share of ourselves, we invite the reader into a shared experience. After all, isn’t that what being a writer is all about?

How do you bring your life experiences into your writing? Have you ever gifted one of your treasured memories to a character? Please let us know in the comments how you’ve drawn on your own life journey in your stories.

* * * * * *

About Bob

Eldred "Bob" Bird

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).

His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

Top photo credit: Eldred Bird

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13 comments on “Put Your Life into Your Writing”

  1. Great post, Bob!

    I like your examples.

    There've been many times when I wanted to write about a place I had personally never been. What helped me was finding people who either lived there and picked their brains, or finding visuals from the area. Visualizing helps too as does a hyperactive imagination, if there is such a thing.

    1. I understand it's not always practical to visit a location in order to experience it. Picking the brain of someone who has been there is a great solution. The more people you can talk to, the better. Different people will experience the same place in different ways and notice different things. Great job!

  2. A sensible post. So often, people trot out something like 'write what you know,'show don't tell', 'don't use adverbs' etc and leave it at that. No explanation.
    Here you have explained it well.

    1. Pretty much any advice can be taken in a multitude of ways. It's always good to look at them from every possible angle see what you can glean from them.
      It's also good to keep in mind that not every piece of advice needs to be incorporated into your work. If we all wrote the same way, we'd all sound the same. It's how we creatively break the so-called rules that set each of us apart.

  3. Thanks for this, Bob. For me, I try to tie into the emotions that I've felt and bring those to the page. My novel, Sisterhood, had a lot of my memories and experiences in it as the rough basis for the story. While my work is fantasy on many levels, I like to tie into that real life emotion.

    1. Starting from your own emotional experiences makes for a great foundation. It's always easier to write a character's emotional response when you've been there yourself.

  4. Because of ME/CFS, I get out very little, and spend most of my non-napping time futzing around on the computer (sometimes actually writing!), so I have very little first-hand experience currently, and no ability to go where I might get more. (From the past, I have plenty - my BS is in physics, the MS and PhD in Nuclear Engineering (plasma physics), and I was usually the only woman in my student cohorts - plenty of male student, professor, and researcher models back then.)

    So I mine, ferociously, both what experience I have from more than 34 years ago, and what I can imagine. Or what I know of other people's experience, being careful not to make it too identifiable (though my kids say they've seen themselves in my characters occasionally). Including middle son.

    You don't want to use too much of what you've read in other people's books, or seen on TV - that's second-hand info - but some of it will trigger ideas to pursue.

    A big example for me is that I love some of the male characters essentially written from inside by a male author - John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee stories are a big favorite, as are the original Ian Fleming Bond books (not the movies, which are ridiculous).

    I figure if their (male) authors have figured out how to write what they think and what motivates the actions of their male characters, that, plus the men in my life (cousins, but alas no brothers amongst the five of us), allows me to write my own characters. It seems to work - my older male reviewers have written most of my favorite reviews, often including something like, "I don't normally read this kind of book, but..." followed by lovely praise. I designed this - am happy to say it works.

    My female characters are like-wise a lot me - and a lot my four younger sisters. I know how I think - and how they act (they're normal and don't write fiction). Plus daughters.

    You use what you have and add to that what you can observe or otherwise acquire - I know a lot of quirky people, but not many unbelievable ones. If you know people's actual stories, there's a lot of data out there.

    Places - from the Acapulco and New Jersey beaches through a visit to India as a Girl Guide long ago - plus what you can read about. If I've been there once (like New Hampshire or Europe), I can conjure enough sensory details to ground whole villages.

    1. I get where you're coming from with your the male characters, Alicia. I get very positive feedback from female readers about the women in my books. They tell me I don't write weak women, and they like that. I grew up with my mother, three older sisters, and a grandmother who was a God-fearing, tough-skinned pioneer woman. Add to that living in a small town in my teens with half a dozen of my friend's mothers treating me like their own kid and I have plenty to draw on!

      1. Don't forget the old standby: if you ask a woman what she's thinking, she will probably tell you. But if you ask a man, he probably has no idea, and you'll get a blank stare. (Experience)

        Which is why I like McGee - I assume it's JDM giving me plausible stuff, because he knew.

  5. I think it helps to write in a world (place) you know or one you made up.

    It's easy to look up something on wikipedia to read things for research, but it's not aware of all the local flavor. You might see a building mentioned and think it's the most prominent building in a cityscape because it's called a world trade center, but locals know it's not *the building* known as a landmark. Or you see the name of a hotel and think it's swanky, but it hasn't been swanky in 100 years and currently serves as an apartment building, rather than a hotel, despite the name. Or you see a neighborhood and think it works for your plot, and it's a neighborhood with a documented high crime rate which your character wouldn't live in.

    That's where the research can fail you, because you just don't know the region.

  6. I know a little bit about a lot of things, because of my decades as a trainer. I'm with Lisa that I like to bring the emotions in more than anything, but sometimes a place is so over the top, I just HAVE to use it. My fiction trilogy is set in such a place -- a healthcare clinic that catered to the adult film industry -- and I laugh my head off every time I venture into that world.

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