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Write What You Feel

Did I tell you about the time John Grisham complimented my writing?

That’s a phrase I like to sneak into conversations.

And not just because it sounds kind of awesome. I talk about it because it answers a question I often get about subject matter expertise.

Whenever I go to a conference, visit a book group or speak at an event, I’m asked how my background in pharmaceuticals prepared me to write the Maggie O’Malley Mystery Series.

The short answer: It didn’t.

The longer answer: It didn’t have to.

I don’t have a background in pharmaceuticals or medicine. In fact, I think that whole “Write what you know” thing can often be too narrow. In my mind, the slightly different “Write what you can understand” is a more accurate axiom.

We all know that mystery authors don’t always share the backgrounds of their characters. Just because a protagonist is a handwriting analyst who knows jujitsu and pilots a Citation on weekends doesn’t mean that the author who created him or her fits that description,. Likewise, simply because an author writes from the point of view of a psychopathic killer doesn’t (necessarily) mean that he or she is also a crazed murderer.

The same holds true for writing about topics that may be new to us. As authors, we delve deep into our subjects. We research. We interview. We question. Then we exercise empathy as we put ourselves in shoes we’ve never tried on, let alone worn for many miles.

Writing about things I previously knew nothing about comes with the territory as an advertising copywriter. I write about sports I don’t do, engine components I couldn’t begin to install, and places I’ve never been.

The latter is where the Grisham praise comes in.

Two years ago, I wrote a print campaign for a resort in the Lowcountry. Grisham felt that the work had so accurately portrayed the feeling of the place—a place I’d never been, mind you—that he wrote the resort and said so.

After I climbed down from cloud nine, I realized what an apt reflection it was of what I do as an author. Writing can be a lot like reading: we don’t have experience something firsthand in order to feel as though we have.

That’s not to say that I don’t research. I do. Extensively. Thoroughly. Painstakingly. (Emphasis on pain.) But I also celebrate what we feel as well as what we know.

On the publication of my second book, 39 Winks, I’m grateful for those who’ve helped me research, and for the heady mélange of understanding and knowledge. So while I can’t say “Did you hear what John Grisham said about my book?” I can say “Thanks for coming with me into Maggie’s world. I can’t wait to see where we go next.”

(Re-posted from a visit with the amazing Mysteristas:

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