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!
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).