Sunday, November 29, 2009

Write What You Know

New writers are often told: Write what you know. By doing so, you’ll gets the details right. The feel right. And you won’t have to spend all your time on research. Sounds like good advice ... until you actually get published. And then, if you’ve done your job well, people think that everything you wrote must have actually happened to you. So let me take this opportunity, dear readers, to remind you:


I write short stories. My first published story, in Chesapeake Crimes II, involved a woman who compulsively washed her hands because her mother had ingrained that behavior in her. After the story came out, my dad, who had lived with my mom and me all my life until I left for college—so he clearly should have known better—actually called me and said with concern in his voice, “Did Mommy really make you wash your hands all the time?”

My second short story, in Chesapeake Crimes 3, was about a woman who finally took revenge on her husband after a thirty-year-long abusive marriage. Have I ever been married? Nooo. Did that stop people I know from asking me, “Did that really happen to you?”

Oh my Lord. Fiction!

I guess I should be happy for the questions. It means that not only have people been reading my stories but that the stories feel so real that folks think I must be writing from firsthand knowledge. But I have to say, it gets a little disconcerting when your own family members think you’ve based unflattering characters on them.

My most recent story, “The Worst Noel,” appears in an anthology called The Gift of Murder. It’s about a woman, Gwen, who is the less-favored child in her family. Her older sister was always prettier, thinner, more popular. And no matter what she does, Gwen can’t seem to get anything right in her mother’s eyes. Then the holidays come, there’s a little too much family togetherness, and Gwen decides she’s had way more than enough. She takes matters into her own hands, and the ensuing Christmas Eve dinner will be one her family never forgets. It’s a fun story that plays upon the idea that the holidays are supposed to be magical, but for many people, they’re just one long nightmare to slog through.

So The Gift of Murder was published in October, and the questions and comments began. “Boy, you must really hate your sister.” And “Was your mother really like that?” My real sister is certain I based the horrible older sister on her. (I swear I didn’t.) My dad said he “recognized” the father in the tale.

Sigh. Oh well. At least I call fall back on that old saw: It’s fiction! (Even if I did base the story a little bit on personal experience.)

I hope your holidays are better than Gwen’s. And if you like short stories, or know others who do, I recommend you pick up a copy of The Gift of Murder for yourself, and several more for your friends and family as holiday gifts. Edited by John Floyd, it has 19 stories from some great authors. All involve crime at the holidays (so festive!). You can order it from your favorite indie bookstore, the major chains, and directly from the publisher via The Gift of Murder. You can also get it on Kindle or via other digital means through The Digital Bookshop.

Still on the fence? Here’s the best part: The publisher, Wolfmont Press, is donating all the profits from the book to Toys for Tots. This is the fourth year Wolfmont is engaging in this charitable event. So picking up this book is like two gifts in one: You get to enjoy the book, and you get to help needy kids at the same time. And that, my friends, is not fiction.

As my gift to you, I’m going to raffle off one signed copy of The Gift of Murder. But it’s not quite that simple. To enter, you have to tell us an interesting or funny holiday story from your past. Everyone who comments with a story before midnight tonight (November 30th) will have their names thrown in a hat, and the winner will get the book. So here’s your chance: Write what you know!
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Barb Goffman is an Agatha Award-nominated author who toils as a lawyer by day to pay the vet bills at night for her miracle dog, Scout. (He had cancer three times, but now he’s cured!) She grew up on Long Island but figures she must have been Southern in another life because half the voices she hears in her head—oops, sorry, half the characters she creates—are Southern. In addition to the short stories mentioned above, Barb will have a new story coming out this spring in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin’, a wonderful book with twenty tales of murder and revenge. Barb’s website is


P.A.Brown said...

I personally think the words 'Write what you know' is the single worst piece of advice a new writer can be given. I mean, come on, we write mysteries. Most, if not all, involve murder, sometimes things like forensics and police procedures, even in cozies. A writer needs at least a passing knowledge of those things and unless they're a cop or a forensic technician that means some research. As writers we shouldn't fear that.

I for one would find most novels boring if all they contained were things the writers knew. Most of us haven't lived lives interesting enough to make great stories.

My books are all set in Los Angeles, a city I haven't been in in years, and many of my characters are gay men, I'm female. But I'm frequently told how dead on both my location description and characters are. If all I wrote about was what I knew you'd be reading bland stories about middle aged white women who have never been involved in any major crime or even seen a dead body outside a funeral home. Which would you rather read? I know what I want on my bookshelf.

Barb Goffman said...

Hi, P.A. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think the reason authors, particularly new authors, so often hear that they should write what they know is because it will enable them to get details right. That's the important point: getting things right, because you don't want your reader distracted by errors. That said, there's no reason a writer can't do research, thereby learning and knowing more. Want to write a scene with an arrest in it but you've never been arrested? Well, the answer isn't to not write that scene. And the answer isn't to just make it up. The answer is to do the research to get it right. Somewhere there will be a cop and a lawyer and whoever else from the jurisdiction in question that will help you make sure you know enough of the scene you want to show to be sure you get it right.

I often like to set stories in towns I haven't been in or haven't been to in a long time. It makes it much more of a challenge because I need to do the research to ensure that I get the details right.

Ultimately, how bland an author' work is will rest on his or her skills and his or her ability to do research. A good author will still be writing what he/she knows, after doing enough work so she knows more than when she started the project.

Julie said...

I have said, over and over, (and over, and over...) to those who've asked, "It's fiction. That means you make it up.) I don't know that anyone has ever really believed me. They must all think my life is waaaaaayyy more interesting than it is. And if all my books were true, I'd be a lot prettier and skinnier than I am!

Barb Goffman said...

Hi, Julie. That's exactly right. I haven't been a battered wife. I don't have a compulsion to wash my hands. And I've never tried to enact revenge against family members. Yet people who know me still wonder if my stories are based on my own past. Guess that means we're doing our jobs right.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

I'm thrilled to be a part of this local chapter, and I hope I'll be a part of an upcoming anthology with this group.

We're glad to have you as our guest here on Killer Hobbies.

I think we should write "what we know" in terms of emotional truth.


Barb Goffman said...

Hi, Joanna. Thank you for having me here on Killer Hobbies today.

You make an excellent point about emotional truth. We hear so much that people follow series not because of the plots but because of the characters. That happens when an author creates a character so real to life, so emotionally true, that the audience feels like they know the character. When an author can create a beloved character that readers want to follow from story to story or book to book, that indeed is a true success.

Janice Campbell from NAIWE said...

Great post! I believe in writing what you want to know. For example, I'm working on the first in a mystery series, and while I'm incorporating a lot of what I know, the planned volumes include a lot of what I'd like to know, as well as places I'd like to go (or to revisit, as the case may be). The more I write, the more I realize how much more there is to learn, and that in itself is an exciting challenge.

For the raffle, here's my holiday anecdote.
When I was a child, our family didn't celebrate Christmas, and this worried some of my friends dreadfully. They thought I was really missing out. I think it was in second grade when one of my friends gave me a gift right before the holiday break. She'd wrapped it in yellow paper, and written in large letters, "This is for Janice, not for Christmas." I was touched by her sweetness, but remember being faced with the dilemma of hastily finding a reciprocal gift. There's a first year for everything!

Barb Goffman said...

Hi, Janice. So you learned young the beauty of having gifts on hand that you can give at a moment's notice. An important life lesson indeed. (Also very helpful if you happen to be a person who enjoys shopping.)

I hope your mystery writing goes well. Let me take this opportunity to put on my other hat: I'm also program chair of the Malice Domestic mystery conference. I strongly encourage you to attend. You can meet other readers and writers. While you wouldn't qualify for a panel if you're unpublished in the mystery field, I'm certain you would have a great time. Our next annual conference runs April 30 - May 2 in Arlington, VA. You can learn more at You also can contact me privately for more info.

Gail Farrelly said...

"Write what you know" makes perfect sense to me. And I know my Kindle so well that I wrote a story about her. "The Kindle Did It" is one of the stories in The Gift of Murder. I won't reveal all the details. I'll just tell you that my Kindle is a clotheshorse. And she's very talky.

becky hutchison said...

Thanks for the good advice, Barb. Are you sure you didn't write about things that really happened to you? I've read those stories, and I've had my doubts that they could only be "fiction." (Just kidding. You're an awesome storyteller.)

I guess my Christmas story involves my first time home for that holiday in 19 years. My husband, two children and I normally visited Knoxville at Thanksgiving so the kids could be at home with their presents on Christmas.

However about six years ago, my nephew got married on December 28, so we spent Christmas in Knoxville that year. We participated in all the traditions I'd heard about year after year and longed to be a part of, but I found that they weren't OUR traditions to enjoy.

I also thought that my family and I didn't have too many traditions surrounding Christmas. But I realized we do. We wake up on Christmas mornings in our own beds and take it from there.

Barb Goffman said...

Hi, Gail. I like my books to talk to me to. But perhaps not as much as the Kindle in your story does...

And Becky, that is such a sweet story that I'm speechless for something snappy to say back. Wow.

Thanks to everyone who came around yesterday. The raffle winner is Janice Campbell. Janice please email your address to me (barb at, and I'll send you a copy of The Gift of Murder. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks to everyone for supporting the anthology and helping Toys for Tots!

Janice Campbell from NAIWE said...

Thank you, Barb! I can't wait to read and review it.