Archive for October, 2013

Write What and Where You Know – Down Home(stead) Advice



The adages and axioms about how to write are legion, but none perhaps more universal than “write what you know.” In many ways, this advice makes perfect sense–one thing most readers seem to say they want in their fiction is for the story to be “authentic,” although that definition could be open to interpretation (true, genuine, real, accurate.) I take authentic to mean believable, in the sense that in the universe we have created, the facts seem plausible, and the emotions and psychological makeup of our characters are consistent and congruent. There are distinct advantages to writing what we know–we don’t have to fact check as much. When I write a medical romance, many of the technical details are so ingrained I never have to think about writing the action scenes.

On the other hand, if I’m writing a shootout between Secret Service agents and terrorists, I have to research what kind of weapons and ammunition are used, what the their range might be, what kind of protective equipment is worn, and a host of other details. Not only is the writing easier when we write the familiar, we’re more likely to incorporate small details that enhance the scene. Similarly, when we write what we know from an emotional place, if we’re honest enough, we can instill in our characters the kinds of compelling conflicts and reactions that resonate with readers. Our characters become more “real.”


But writing what we know isn’t without detractions. On a simplistic level, if we only wrote what we knew, how quickly we would run out of things to write about and how boring our books might be. If we only wrote what was real, fantasy and paranormal would automatically be discounted. Many of our mystery and romance plots, as well. And as to emotional truths, what if we’re writing about a vampire? Oughtn’t they have different sets of moral codes, psychological profiles, and emotional reactions (assuming they have reactions) than humans?

Fiction is the creative equivalent of freedom–we can create worlds, rewrite history, and imagine outcomes that might never happen in “real life” as long as we fashion a believable foundation for the social/cultural/ and biologic basis of the universe and script characters who are emotionally consistent. Our personal experiences are the launch pad from which we create our fiction, and drawing on personal experience can only enrich our work.


One of the most important elements of writing what we know, as I have experienced every time I write about familiar places, is setting. In Homestead,Homestead 300 DPI I chose to write about my own front yard. The farm where almost all the action takes place is actually my farm, and the roads and landmarks and villages and most of the people are actually real places and based on real individuals. In addition to the ease of writing a place that is so familiar, I think familiar places instill in us an emotional connection that comes through in what we write. I know when I wrote the Justice series and placed it in Old City Philadelphia, it was easier to write with the kind of observational detail that simply can’t be called up from Google maps or information on the Internet. I know that some of the most difficult settings I’ve had to create are places I have not personally been. Setting becomes a character in our work when it has special meaning to us, like Provincetown has for me in the Provincetown Tales.


Obviously, that is not to say we cannot write about places we have never been, or we’ll be right back in the same restrictive situation we are emotionally and psychologically if we only write what we know. While the benefit of actually visiting the place we’re going to write about cannot be overstated, the Internet does provide us with lots of information about climate, architecture, language, and all the other conditions we need to know to write about a particular place.


So my humble advice: write what you know and want to know, set in places you love—from the heart.


War and Peace

Bold Strokes Books author Sophia Kell Hagin is back with another installment in her riveting series about soldier Jamie Gwynmorgan. Tune in for a glimpse of Shadows of Something Real.

When Horses Fly

She’s the consummate southern storyteller and her latest release, Hold Me Forever, is a must read. Listen in to hear about D. Jackson Leigh’s new project: dragon horses.

For the Kid in Us

Bold Strokes Book author Elizabeth “Libby” Wheeler talks about the adult appeal of her young adult release, Asher’s Fault.

Diving Deep

Bold Strokes Book author Andrea Bramhall tackles memory loss, love, and secrets in her latest novel, Clean Slate.

The Amazon Trail


“We Always Found Ourselves”

I read the novel Spring Fire as a 15 year old, and the title came to represent, for me, the whole concept of lesbian love. The words of the title itself could have been from a poem by Sappho or H.D. And they certainly summed up Spring Fires tale.

Before I even started reading, the author’s androgynous name, Vin Packer, told me what I needed to hear, and the protagonist of Spring Fire, a woman named Mitch, told the rest.

I would have been crushed if I’d found out Vin Packer was a guy, but we young lesbian readers knew, somehow, she wasn’t. The author understood us too well: our fears, our vulnerabilities and, most of all, our passions. Vin Packer was one of us. And she was a writer. In my book, it didn’t get any better. When I grew up, I wanted to be Vin Packer. I wanted to write Spring Fire.

The cover was not very different in style from others of its time, except for the absence of a robust male. I just about memorized it, eager for clues about gay people and our lives, but these women didn’t look like any dykes I’d ever seen. As Vin Packer wrote in her prologue to the 2004 reissue of Spring Fire, “Lesbian readers were able to look past the cover: to find themselves between the pages. We always found ourselves.”

That was exactly what I experienced as a gay kid, that I’d found myself between the pages of Spring Fire.

I wasn’t alone. No lesbian of my generation forgets her first lesbian books. Last month I asked my first girlfriend, Sue, if she remembered finding Vin Packer’s books, including Spring Fire. Sue e-mailed back, “Those were the first books I laid my hands on from the little bookstore near the 5th Av. Library, when I was riding the subway to and from work in NY.  I couldn’t believe there were books about ‘US!’ I had to hide them from my parents but I / had / those / books!!!!” She added, “Thank Vin Packer for being so daring in those days.”

Not insignificant to a baby dyke, the mildly erotic scenes she wrote were, to say the least, inspiring. How I wished there were more books like this! I sought them out when I was in college and found Valerie Taylor, Ann Bannon and more Vin Packer books, under the name Ann Aldrich, at a newspaper store downtown. It’s not an exaggeration to say these brave and talented women may have saved my life. Reading their books was stepping into an alternate reality where right there, in black and white, women felt as I did.  Just her existence gave the hope and resolve I needed to become a lesbian writer myself.

Under her real name of Marijane Meaker, she writes a little history in the foreword to Cleis Press’s 2004 re-issue of Spring Fire. The original publisher, Gold Medal Books, pre-censored the book. It was 1952 and the editor directed Meaker to give the book an unhappy ending.  He told her the postal service would refuse to handle the book if a lesbian relationship was portrayed positively.

Nevertheless, Vin Packer stamped the malleable me with Spring Fire, just as she stamped and gave voice to thousands and thousands of lesbians fortunate enough to read her work in the years between the World War that connected and emboldened gay people with the years when we rioted and marched and challenged the courts – and changed the world.

Spring Fire was a powerfully written story that has survived despite the obstacles imposed on it by the time in which Vin Packer so courageously wrote it.  The impact of Spring Fire on the baby dykes who would become fomenters, with their brothers, of gay and women’s liberation, cannot be denied, or applauded enough. For her talent, her courage, and her stories, the Golden Crown Literary Society presented its Trailblazer Award to Marijane Meaker and its Classic Award for her first novel, Spring Fire. Ms. Meaker accepted the honors by video, out and proud at age 84, still giving as, 60 years later, she told stories to a ballroom full of lesbian readers and writers.

Mary Jane Meaker’s books were there for me when I needed to see something about my newfound gay life in print. The experience of reading a Vin Packer or Ann Aldrich title was intensely exciting and left me shaken. I hid her books from my mother and from roommates in college, but nothing could stop me from reading them. Their very existence, the author’s defiant act of writing those stories, promised a literature of our own.

Copyright Lee Lynch 2013

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