I think I’ve mentioned here before how surprised I was when my first novel (Spin, about a journalist who follows a celebrity into rehab) came out and people automatically assumed that I’d based my main character on myself. That, at a minimum, I’d either been to rehab or had seriously considered it, or, at the limit, that I was a journalist who’d actually gone into rehab undercover. I still maintain that Stephen King never gets asked these questions, but I know why people do: write what you know. If people have only ever heard one thing about about writing, they’ve heard that. And while I think people confuse that saying for “write about yourself,” that’s another conversation.
For many reasons, I’ve always steered clear of writing either about me or people I know. One reason is that I don’t think I’m very good at capturing the essence of real people on paper. That sounds odd, doesn’t it? But bear with me. In each of my first two novels, there is a minor, walk-on character that is based on someone I met briefly. Their personalities were so larger-than-life that I just had to stick them in there, somewhere. I think they are hilarious and I purposively crafted scenes around them. But in both instances, I’ve had people mention them as the only characters they didn’t find believable in the book. This puzzled me for many years, until I finally figured it out: I hadn’t done the work. Because they existed, I hadn’t fleshed them out. They were 2-D versions of real people, and so they seemed as flat as the page.
I’ve always steered clear of writing either about me or people I know.
All that being said, of course sometimes things slip in subconsciously—things people have told me, things I’ve seen, stories I’ve heard. And then, sometimes, real life provides a spark that I run with. That happened with my soon to be released novel, Smoke. Which is what got me thinking about this all over again.
I’ve been going to a fantastic writer’s conference in Jackson Hole every summer since 2010. I feel in love with the place, and made many good friends. Three years ago, they had a terrible fire season. There were already bad fires when I was there in June; when I climbed to the top of the local hill, I saw a stack of smoke that looked like a bomb had gone off. [Read more…]