Can I Write About That? by Pat Stoltey

My first attempt at novel-writing was based on my brother’s experience in the transportation industry in the 1970s. He provided the basics—overall plot, knowledge of 18-wheelers and trucker jargon. I did the writing—just barely well enough to get an audiobook contract. I had an expert co-author, so writing out of my own experience made sense. The only research I had to do concerned the real-life events of the time, a little union background, and enough information to at least mention Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance.

Then I tried a thriller. One of the main characters had been kidnapped by terrorists in Lebanon so there were scenes involving the hostage conditions, escape through the backstreets of Beirut, and the aftereffects of a long incarceration with a group of prisoners who did not escape. That was before I heard of PTSD, before Google Earth, before easy online research. Needless to say, I had bitten off more than I could chew at the time. That novel sits on my shelf, still wondering if it will ever get my attention again.

I learned my lesson. My next book was set in an environment I knew well, involved characters more like me and other folks I’d met in real life, and involved an easy-to-research crime. A sequel took the same characters to a new setting, but still one I knew well.

Even the thriller, Dead Wrong, is based in the U.S. and follows a path from Florida to Denver to Fort Collins—territory I’ve traveled through many times. The crime was easy. I based the plot on a check theft ring I’d learned about first hand when I worked for a company that was victimized by a similar case.

 

When I decided to try a historical mystery, I still used the countryside where I’d grown up, east-central Illinois, so the research built on information I already knew. But here’s where I drifted into new territory. One of the main characters in Wishing Caswell Dead is an elderly Kickapoo Indian, a kind man often subjected to cruel treatment by the novel’s villain. There is also a French trapper, a woman who seduces another woman, and a survivor of a lightning strike. Some of the information I use is based on solid research. Other parts of the storyline are 100% imagination.

Where must we draw the line in today’s super-sensitive world when writing about places we’ve never been, characters we’ve never met, situations we’ve never experienced?

 

I’m an older, white female. Is it okay that I had a female character in The Prairie Grass Murders whose parents were Mexican and Puerto Rican? I often write from a man’s point of view—one character is a Vietnam vet with PTSD, another a Cuban male crime boss.

Mental illness plays a role in some of my stories. I’ve never been hospitalized for a mental illness, but I have characters in a couple of my novels who have suffered such a fate. I do know a couple of people who have serious mental conditions, but that doesn’t mean I understand their experience. Can I write from what I do know and what I discover with research?

I think most of us want to indulge our creativity and let our imaginations weave stories that might have happened, that could happen, that probably will happen someday. Limiting ourselves to writing only about our own experience would stifle that magic.

Will I try to write a novel about a young single African-American mother who lives in an old housing project in Detroit? Probably not. That experience is way too remote from my middle-Illinois farm upbringing. Traveling to Detroit to do the kind of involved research required is not something I’d do at my age and level of creakiness.

But could I write a story about a white girl living with an old grandfatherly Kickapoo Indian during a cold Illinois winter in the 1830s? I gave it my best shot!

 

Bio:

Pat Stoltey is the author of two amateur sleuth novels, The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders. Her standalone thriller, Dead Wrong, was a finalist in the 2015 Colorado Book Awards. A short story, “Three Sisters of Ring Island,” appeared in the 2014 anthology Tales in Firelight and Shadow. Wishing Caswell Dead is scheduled for release December 20, 2017 and is available now for pre-order in ebook and hardcover (https://www.amazon.com/Wishing-Caswell-Dead-Pat-Stoltey-ebook/dp/B074VKLK8F/).

A former accounts payable manager, Pat began writing seriously after retirement. She has lived in Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, and the south of France, but now she’s a resident of Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Katie Cat, and Sassy Dog. Learn more about Pat at her website/blog (http://patriciastolteybooks.com), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/patricia.stoltey) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/PStoltey).

 

 

Patricia Stoltey
Blog Editor

Patricia grew up on a farm in central Illinois so naturally had to use the old farm in her first mystery. The second Sylvia and Willie tale takes place near and in the little touristy gold mining town of Oatman, Arizona. Patricia’s third novel, a standalone suspense called Dead Wrong, was released November 2014. Dead Wrong was a finalist in the thriller category for the Colorado Book Awards. Visit her blog at http://patriciastolteybooks.com


10 thoughts on “Can I Write About That? by Pat Stoltey

  1. An intriguing discussion about, “Write What You Know.” Since I write in the fifteenth century, I’m limited by not only what’s been published, but also by what’s available to me. The Internet, inhabited by people who are willing to share, has helped considerably, and Google Earth is amazing. Like you, I love research and discovery. Thanks, Pat!

    • Hi Janet! The recent kerfuffle over a Kirkus starred review is a good example of how an author can offend readers without intending to do so. A white author writes about a white main character who happens to rescue a Muslim character from a bad situation. The kerfuffle came after the review, and Kirkus reacted. NPR’s article: http://www.npr.org/2017/10/21/559215264/kirkus-changes-review-after-american-heart-draws-outrage-as-white-savior-narrati

      This one is a new twist on the cultural appropriation discussion because the issue here is more about 1) seeing the Muslim character only through a white filter and 2) having the “white savior” flaw, i.e., the white character saves the Muslim. When you read the book synopsis and the articles about the Kirkus review, you begin to wonder if the thought police have launched a full-scale war against ideas and imagination. Every book ever written by a white author about the underground railroad, if it contains African-American characters, is a piece of this slippery slope.

  2. Men have been writing books from women’s viewpoints for years and years. No one ever questions that. It’s just like if you write sexy books, some people think it’s all based on your own experience. But no one thinks authors who write characters who are serial killers are actually sociopathic monsters themselves. It’s all based on imagination. I can see it more in fashion and that sort of thing, but ultimately every author who writes a character who isn’t themselves is appropriating the sex, culture, personality of their character. There’s nothing wrong with it as long as the author is genuinely trying to be authentic in their creation. If they aren’t then it’s bad writing as much as anything else.

    • Check out the horrid mess of reviews on Goodreads for “American Heart” — the book doesn’t even come out until January, but readers are competing to leave one star and five star comments while admitting they haven’t read the book and are reacting to the review issue. I’d feel sorry for the author if I hadn’t looked at her Amazon sales rankings for the book more than two months ahead of the release date.

    • Thanks for the link, Dani. The thing I fear most is a whole bunch of boring novels from writers who are afraid to write outside their own background. Imagination is such a wonderful thing…how can we ignore it?

  3. Enjoyed hearing about what you write, Pat. It’s quite a challenge sometimes for me to get outside my own experiences with total confidence in my research. My next big challenge will be replicating the experience of a Caucasian woman who lands in Beijing’s Women’s Prison… should be interesting to see how much info is out there on this…limited I imagine…. I may have to do a lot of dreaming to imagine it.

    • It’s a challenge, Karen! One of my on-the-shelf manuscripts includes a POV character who has been kidnapped with others and is being held in a location in Lebanon. The prisoners are all male, as are the terrorists who guard them. That’s really writing outside my own experience, but it was an interesting challenge. I didn’t even have a dream (or nightmare) to go on. I know there’s at least one book out there now by a hostage who was later released so if I ever decide to work on the book again, I can do real research.

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