Photo Credit: John A. Reade, Jr.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW? I HAVE A BETTER IDEA…
I knew I was going to love writing my first novel, Secrets of Hallstead House, as soon as I came up with the idea for it.
How did I know?
I was plotting it in my head and I ran a red light.
I didn’t hit anyone; I didn’t get even stopped by the police. There weren’t any other cars around. I was on my way to the second night of a three-night writing workshop that I had signed up for just to get out of the house for a few evenings. The homework had been to come up with a seed of a story idea. I was so absorbed in the tale beginning to play out in my mind that I just ignored the stoplight. It took me a minute to realize what I had done, and I knew right then that I was going to love this book-writing thing.
Secrets of Hallstead House is set in the Thousand Islands of upstate New York, very close to where I grew up. It’s where I spent much of my childhood. I don’t remember making a conscious decision to set my story there-when the idea was still forming in my head, that’s just where all the action took place. Writers are often told to “write what you know,” so I suppose it was only natural that the story takes place in a setting I know very well.
But as much as I know about the Thousand Islands, there was much more that I didn't know. There were so many things that I had never thought about, like how people who stay on the islands over the winter get their mail. And just how long are those ships that ply the St. Lawrence Seaway?
I never did figure out how people get their mail in the winter, because the Hallstead family spends the winter months on a different, more accessible island. And the ship in Secrets is one football field in length.
The more I learned, the more I wanted to know (the same thing happened with my second book, too. And my third, which is still in its early stages).
I love every minute of the writing process, but I must admit that the research is my favorite part. I research everything: dates, places, climate, clothing styles, local foods, history, and a million other subjects. Believe me when I say it’s very easy for me to get swept away researching a book.
But when it came time to sit down and actually start writing, I found that all my research was playing a different role in the story than I had envisioned. I began the story thinking that I would wow my readers with my encyclopedic knowledge of the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands, but all my facts ended up playing a more supporting role.
Because I learned that in order to get my readers to feel like they were experiencing the magic of the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands along with Macy, my protagonist, I needed to find the words to convey how I felt about the river. I needed to put into words the feelings that my childhood memories evoked. And those feelings are hard to write down because they don’t exist in my head, but in my heart.
My grandmother’s family had an island where I loved spending time. How do I write what it felt like to make huckleberry pies with fruit we picked on the island? How do I describe the musty-piney smell of the cottage? How do I tell readers what went through my mind the first time I saw a snake swimming with me, its pointed little head sticking out of the water (in other words, what does sheer terror sound like)? Or when my sister and I caught sunfish off the dock? How do I convey the scent of the water when we went out on my grandfather’s boat?
Those are the things that are hard to write. As it turns out, the facts (those things I researched) are the easy part. The things that are hard to write are the things that make a story good to read.
So I have a different piece of advice. It’s okay to write what you know, but try instead to write what’s in your heart. You’ll find your story more rewarding, and your readers will, too.