Thursday, May 19, 2011

Write What You Know, But Don't Stop There!

Writers and wanna-be writers are always told 'write what you know' and that old adage has always worked for me. I’ve written three books – two non-fiction and one novel – and all three have been inspired by my own life experiences. Heck, the second book, Kinky Gazpacho, is all about my life experiences, it’s a freakin’ memoir. It’s not that I think my little world is so completely fascinating, but the things that happen to me are the things that obviously consume most of my time and attention, so obviously it’s as good a place as any to come up with story ideas.

That being said, there’s a big difference between, 'the book was inspired by my own life and the book is about my life,'especially when it comes to fiction. Readers often get the two confused. And I admit, I’m as guilty as the next person in reading into a novelist’s work, trying to figure out what part of the main character is really the author working through her own issues. A lot of readers ask me which of the main characters in my novel, Substitute Me, do I most relate to. Clearly, they really want to know if the African-American nanny is actually me. She’s not. Not by a long shot. In fact, of the two main characters in the book, I identify a lot more with the White woman who employs the nanny. See readers, I threw you off with the race swap thing. Ha!!

But seriously, my agent gave me the greatest compliment when she read the first draft of Substitute Me and said, “I’m so proud of you. This book is so not about you.” I was thrilled that I was able to create two unique characters that really were creations of my own imagination. And that’s where we get back to the difference between inspired by and about. I can freely admit that the germ of the story in Substitute Me – exploring the relationship between a working woman and the woman she hires to be her domestic replacement – came from my own experience trying to find the perfect nanny to care for my newborn son. (True confession, I gave up the hunt, quit my job and worked from home for many years.) I often wondered how other women managed to make that relationship work, how they juggled the guilt and freedom having a nanny provided. And soon enough, a story began to take shape in my mind that answered those questions for me. Ten years later, Substitute Me hit store shelves.

As a magazine writer, my own hectic life is always where I begin to cull my story ideas from. And I’m not writing personal essays. But looking over my clips from the last ten years, it’s pretty clear what’s been going on in my life. I wrote about pregnancy, spring cleaning, raising kids with a positive body image, the effects of spanking, and getting along with your in-laws during the holidays. Trust me, I never showed up as a source in any of those stories, but the ideas were “ripped from the headlines” of my home. The thing is, I figure if this stuff is important to me, it’s probably important to somebody else. And when you take that same approach with fiction, if something happens in your life and you can’t stop thinking about it or wondering how other people deal with such things, you’ve probably got the makings of a great novel or short story.

Wanna know what I’m thinking about now? Adoption. We did a lot of work and started the adoption process. As it turns out, I slipped and got pregnant. So the adoption is off, but I’m still thinking about it. Wondering what if? What if we adopted and had a new baby at the same time? And so a new story begins. Stay tuned.

Lori L. Tharps is the author of Substitute Me. Feel free to visit her at


  1. I'm always guilty of looking for the author in a novel too, wondering how much she is like the main character. Thanks for a thought-provoking essay.

  2. Congratulations, Lori! I'm new at this (book came out two months ago) but have already answered the question about who I am in my novel many times. It's a FAQ.

  3. Karin,
    I've gotten so bad at that, I forbid myself from even glancing at the author photo so I don't make assumptions about which character she might be. But the truth is, many authors do put themselves in the pages of their work.

    Thanks and good luck with your new book!

  4. What's strange is that I don't resemble my own main character in 32 CANDLES, but find myself looking for clues about the author in other fiction that I read. I guess it's the reader trying to figure out "what you know."

  5. Lori, this is a wonderful post, and as a reader/dream to be writer I do often wonder how much of my own life I could or would put into a novel, you know do I need to wait until most of my siblings pass away or go into witness protection before I write a book?
    Thanks for your honesty.

  6. Ernessa,
    I'm glad you said that, because I was kinda wondering if you secretly had a powerful Jennifer Hudson-like voice? Ha!

    Thanks. Speaking from experience if you want to write a memoir, wait for everyone you know to die. If it's fiction, and you are basing some of your characters on real people, deny, deny, deny. I'm kidding of course. Sort of.