Writers are often advised to “Write what you know.” This well-worn phrase encourages writers to base their stories around subjects they understand and experiences they have had. But if followed strictly, this advice does not leave much material for storytelling. Writing what I know would leave my stories populated entirely by white men, dealing only with sports and forensic science.
Such stories would quickly become dull, in part because they do not address the diverse perspectives of this world. But how can I, a white male who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and graduated from college, write about a black man who grew up on the opposite side of the city and dropped out of college to join the Army? How can I write from the perspective of a woman? Or a person suffering from depression or a traumatic brain injury?
For me, writing what I know means letting my personal experiences color the stories I tell, even as I explore perspectives that are not my own. It means taking pieces of myself and stretching and shaping them into new characters. In doing so, I hope to tell stories that balance honesty and familiarity with new ideas and perspectives.
This interpretation of writing what I know describes my approach to creating the four main characters in my novel Parabellum. Each of these characters draws on some aspect of my personality. But I would say that none of them is much like me when considered in their entirety. The following is a breakdown of each character and how they grew out of my experiences.
The Computer Programmer
The computer programmer is desensitized to physical pain and does not appear to feel strong emotions like fear or love. He struggles to form meaningful attachments with people, including his own family. He cannot recall the last time he had a nightmare. When his grandfather passes away, he comforts his mother as she mourns her father’s death. Yet he does not seem to feel sadness or sympathy for this loss.
While I don’t share all of the programmer’s qualities, I do have a certain amount of emotional detachment that allows me to shield myself from the impact of potentially traumatic situations or objects. This detachment is common in surgeons who must cut into the flesh of living people. It’s part of what allows me to be a successful forensic scientist.
As part of my forensics day job, I have cleaned blood off of guns used in suicides. I have handled what I believe were fragments of the skull of a person shot in the head. Obviously, there are people who could not deal with these objects without becoming sick with disgust or incapacitated by emotional trauma.
I don’t enjoy these parts of my job. But I’m able to separate such gruesome objects from the circumstances that led to them arriving in my lab. I can treat the suicide gun as a weapon covered in red fluid. I can treat the skull fragments as pieces of hard white material that have no bearing on my analysis.
When it came to writing the programmer’s character, I tried to extend my ability to shield myself from crippling emotional impact to a character who appears incapable of feeling any strong emotions. I took my limited detachment and applied it on a larger scale to almost every aspect of the programmer’s life.
The Ex-College Athlete
This character is the one that feels closest to me.
Unlike the ex-athlete, I do not have CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated brain trauma). But at a basic level, this character is struggling with the loss of an activity that once defined her. The ex-athlete played soccer her whole life. But in the present of Parabellum, her soccer injuries have made her unable to play the sport without serious risk to her health.
I have also played sports my entire life. My parents still have a photograph of me as a toddler, swinging a plastic bat at a Wiffle ball. I played baseball from tee-ball until two years after I graduated from college. In high school and college, I got used to playing baseball six days a week. I spent more time on the baseball field in those eight years than I did in any single classroom.
Writing what I know means letting my personal experiences color the stories I tell, even as I explore perspectives that are not my own.
After I graduated from college, I played for a year in Sweden and South Africa, then in a summer league in Chicago. When I played in that summer league, there were times when I got frustrated because I wasn’t as good as I had been a year or two ago. But I no longer wanted to dedicate the time I needed to maintain the same skill level. I still love baseball, but I stopped playing because I knew I wasn’t going to play at a higher level than I did in college. It was time for me to take the next step in my life.
So while I can’t identify with suffering repeated head injuries, I can identify with the ex-athlete at her stage in life—early adulthood and giving up a sport that defined her. I chose to stop playing baseball, and she was more or less forced to quit playing soccer. But we both gave up sports we love to tackle new challenges in life. Her CTE just makes her challenges more difficult than mine.
The Army Veteran
In my mind, this character is actually very similar to the ex-athlete. However, I share fewer life experiences with the Army veteran than I do with the ex-athlete.
I have never served in the military. I have never had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Even though I work for a police agency, I am not a police officer. I do not carry a gun or a badge. I do not patrol a beat or investigate crime scenes. In the particulars, our lives are very different.
But in listening to the accounts of military veterans, it seems at least part of the challenge of transitioning to civilian life is giving up the most rewarding and adrenaline-fueled period of one’s life. How do you go from risking your life for your country and fighting an enemy halfway around the world to sitting behind a desk for eight hours a day?
To write this character, I researched the symptoms of PTSD and read the memoir of a former United States Marine who suffered from this affliction. That research provided me with the language to describe what this character is going through in Parabellum.
But the color behind that language comes from my shift from traveling the world playing baseball to returning home to live with my parents and attend grad school. Like the ex-athlete, the Army veteran also struggles with giving up a lifestyle that once defined him, something I can relate to on a smaller scale.
The High School Student
The high school student was the most difficult character for me to write.
I am fortunate to have never suffered from clinical depression, and I don’t have many experiences that compare with what this character goes through in Parabellum. I also found myself uncertain about how to represent depression without resorting to oversimplified emotional tropes.
But, like the student, I am introspective and an introvert. I know what it’s like to have a rich internal dialogue even though I don’t always express myself outwardly. And like anyone else, I have encountered my share of disappointments and setbacks in life.
In writing this character, I tried to increase the frequency of the disappointments in his life and exaggerate his negative reaction to setbacks. The student continually ruminates on his shortcomings and missteps, while I am usually able to move on. Though we both engage in internal dialogue, his thoughts are often self-deprecating and despondent.
I also relied on the book Unholy Ghost, a collection of essays by writers who suffer from depression. These descriptive accounts helped me with the language I needed to portray the many nuances of depression. Combined with my efforts to exaggerate my own experiences, I hope these essays helped me avoid a stereotypical, surface-level representation of clinical depression.
Writing What I Know
In short, writing what I know led to four characters who share small pieces of me. Though I am not like any of these characters in the generalities, we do share some particulars that helped me craft their personalities. Hopefully, the result is characters that feel genuinely human and accurately reflect their individual circumstances.