I hate the adage “write what you know.”
Hate it. But I don’t hate it because it’s wrong. As an author, there are plenty of things about your life woven into your fiction, and most of the time this is done unconsciously. The car your character drives has a striking resemblance to your own. A few choice turns of phrases that you’ve been known to use pepper your manuscript. Your protagonist’s drink of choice is, coincidentally, a margarita on the rocks, two parts tequila, one part lime, touch of orange liquor and a drizzle of agave nectar. No salt, not ever.
No, I hate that phrase “write what you know” because too many readers take it as an unalterable truism. By readers, of course, I mean family members. They mean well, God bless ’em, but boy do they want to know where all that darkness comes from. It has to come from somewhere, because, you know, you write what you know, and if the villain in your book fancies choking out hookers and making totem poles out of their torsos, well, we may need to revisit that time you went to summer camp when you were sixteen.
My mom always wants to read my manuscripts before they go to a publisher. In an early manuscript, I struggled mightily with the protagonist’s motivation for the way he behaved in the arc of the story. Then it hit me that a lot of his actions could be better appreciated in the context of him having lived through a traumatic childhood event, and I added in a fairly disturbing scene in which said character, as a ten-year-old, is molested by his teacher. (full disclosure: unless I’m suppressing something, that never happened to me or anyone I knew). So my mom reads the story and, in perfect Mom-form, graciously tells me she likes it and notes out a dozen or so typos, but otherwise says nothing. A month later (A MONTH!) I’m visiting with her and she says she needs to ask me something. What is it? I ask. Of course, she asks if I’ve ever been molested. Now, at this point, I don’t even realize we’re talking about my book, so the question hits me like a foul ball hurling at my head out of the blinding sunshine. What? Did you seriously just ask me that?
Well, she says, it was in your book. And authors only write what they know.
Imagine that. She had been holding that in for a month, trying to find the courage to ask me. Apparently she had been calling my sister to recollect anything that could have happened. Of course, my sister recalled to her one time when she vaguely remembered a stranger asking me to go for a hike (and maybe this is the suppressed part…) and thought the guy was a little creepy. That story, apparently, was the tipping point for my mother to finally ask. God, I felt horrible. I assured her that, to the best of my memory, the creepy hiker merely wanted to go hiking.
I’ve had other questions from family members, including, “who was that person based on?” Or, “why don’t you like to write happy things?” And once, “What are you hiding?”
Maybe there is a deeply rooted psychological answer for why thriller/suspense writers gravitate toward the dark, but I think the truest answer is this: darkness begets tension, and tension begets a good story. If I truly wrote a book based on what I know from my real life, it would be boring as hell.
How far are you willing to go for Mister Tender?
At fourteen, Alice Hill was viciously attacked by two of her classmates and left to die. The teens claim she was a sacrifice for a man called Mister Tender, but that could never be true: Mister Tender doesn’t exist. His sinister character is pop-culture fiction, nothing more.
Over a decade later, Alice has changed her name and is trying to heal. But someone is watching her. They know more about Alice than any stranger: her scars, her fears, and the secrets she keeps locked away. She can try to escape her past, but he is never far behind.
Addictive and chillingly surprising, this ripped-from- the-headlines thriller will have you transfixed until the very last page.
About Carter Wilson
USA Today bestselling author Carter Wilson explores the depths of psychological tension and paranoia in his dark, domestic thrillers. Carter is a two-time winner of both the Colorado Book Award and the International Book Award, and his novels have received multiple starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. Carter lives in Erie, Colorado in a spooky Victorian house.