I asked Lynda to write about how an author's "real life career" influences their books. Since she herself has worked in a job (child protection services) that is closely tied to her novel, I wanted her to explain how that tied into her novel.
What a great question! I would not call my experience in child protection a career, but rather a passion. My career (that which paid the bills) was in business administration, not considered the ripest fruit for fiction, but not impossible either. Child protection work came from my heart. The idea of “professional” outreach workers is a new one and back in the 70’s, most of us were volunteers – though between the social service agencies and various police programs, we did receive wonderful training, which, admittedly, helped only so far as you had a personal avocation for the work. Either you had the knack for connecting to these kids, or you didn’t; the gift couldn’t be installed.
However, the question wasn’t about the work itself, but how it affected my novel.
There’s a wise old adage about writing, one it serves any writer well to remember: Write what you know.
I know a lot about children, the abuses they endure and their strength and ability to go on being children, in spite of the hell around them, both from my work with them and my own experiences growing up. So I wrote what I knew.
Would you write a medical mystery thriller if you had no first-hand experience in medicine? Or a legal drama without knowledge of the law? You could; but would it come across as real? Granted it’s been done, usually through research and the involvement of those with first hand knowledge of the field. Rarely does such work hold the same sense of “true to life” as that written by those actually involved. Would Grisham’s novels be so gritty, so compelling, and so believable if he were not a lawyer?
I ran into this conundrum when writing the sequel to This Bird Flew Away: Fly High; Fly Blind (working title) based on a true murder trial of an immigrant woman who killed her abusing husband. The research alone occupied most of a year, and I owe a lot to a certain attorney who specializes in the defense of such cases, and even more to his paralegal. (Though my husband was a little disconcerted when he found the material sent to me.)
At least, I’d had many experiences being in court – as a witness, in case you were wondering – and understood legal procedures. And I know a few prosecutors very well. That helped. But even though I’ve had several attorney’s read the manuscript and received their blessings on the legal content, I don’t feel the same sense of conviction and belief in the story as I did with the first. It was hard to write. Luckily, the story’s essence is the continuation of the relationship between Bria and Jack, (who now find themselves in oppositions to each other) so as long as there are no “howlers” in the legalities, I am content.
It is this need to write with complete involvement and understanding that makes us lean on our own experiences -- or should. Our fiction needs to be well-anchored to reality as we know it or our stories simply will not work. Otherwise we are like Alec Baldwin in that commercial where he sits in the pilot seat of a jet and announces, “Don’t worry. I’ve played a pilot before.” Not the same thing!
Of course our careers, our life-experiences influence our writing. How could it be otherwise? We must write what we know if we are to be at all believable. Nor does our choice in life make a difference. If what we know is business administration, then we set our story in that background. (I can see it now, an accountant, Jane, at odds with the lead of the external audit team, Bob. Will Bob find out about the padded income statement? Will Jane be successful in hiding the discrepancy? Will they find true love?) Or if you’ve been a homemaker all your life, write about that. No matter wh
at it is we know, we can be assured that millions of others share the knowledge and will relate.
But if we get all high-and-mighty, believing reality too dull to write about and try to be what we are not, our stories will not work. There’s a need for honesty in our writing that can never be manufactured.
Thank you for allowing me to wax prolific on such an interesting subject.
Lynda M Martin