“Write what you know” is one of the oldest pieces of advice given to writers – and as far as I am concerned, one of the most suspect. My life is generally dull. I have never flown a space ship, nor partied all night with a shapeshifter, nor plotted a murder. (Well, maybe, but I never actually went through it…)
Most of what we write we don’t really know – we have researched it (at least, we should have!) and extrapolated it using the criteria of what we do know, but if we were restricted to writing just what we really know personally, literature would be in a truly sad shape.
Which is why when my new novel BEADED TO DEATH written as Janis Patterson was in the still-just-talking-about stages I was delightedly shocked to find that – after some twenty books – I was finally going to write about something that I actually knew something about!
The backstory : I had just finished a lovely spooky Gothic mystery – INHERITANCE OF SHADOWS – and was thinking about doing another straight mystery. My last mystery, THE HOLLOW HOUSE, had been set in 1919 Denver and I wanted to do something contemporary. I was talking with a writing friend, who said that craft mysteries were still doing very well and that I should try one.
So that there is no mistake, let me make it very clear that I am one of the least crafty people in the world. I stab myself with sewing needles. I am not only a disaster with paint, but an unparalleled mess-on-the-move. I have hot glue burns in places… well, you just don’t want to know. So I said, No. Most emphatically.
My friend said that I did beadwork and made jewelry using beads, didn’t I?
The lightbulb went on and BEADED TO DEATH was born.
I will admit that it’s been a while since I’ve created an openwork bib necklace with interior pendants – heroine and bead artist Lilias Ruiz is a stickler for proper terminology – or a bead flower, but the knowledge never leaves you. And thank goodness, there is no hot glue in sight!
Now when it comes to dead bodies, that’s where the research comes in. I mean, just how many writers have ever actually killed someone? I’ve never gotten the drop on an FBI agent – never even met one, if you want to know the truth – and I’ve certainly never had anything to do with illicit drugs.
I have learned that you need to be very careful when researching drugs. It can bring you all kinds of peculiar attentions. Luckily I know a police officer (a dear friend of my late brother, who was a peace officer all his life) who is well aware of my basic lawabidingness as well as of my little quirks. He was most happy to answer my seemingly endless questions without doubts as to my ultimate motives. At least, I don’t think he had any.
Neither have I ever had a 7’3” nephew on the run from an unwanted basketball scholarship. First of all. all my nephews are far too old to be worried about scholarships, and the tallest of them is only 6’4”. Maybe 6’5”. None of them have the insouciant charm of Toby Applegate, either! Whatever their height, though, I can still remember their attitudes and some of the scrapes they got into when they were Toby’s age… the ones they would share with the family, at least.
While I had an antique shop for a while many, many years ago, I have never had a booth on the art/craft fair circuit, but I have a friend who has done so for years. (She makes the most incredible wearable fabric art!) Luckily for me, she was more than willing to share her knowledge. And a few stories, none of which – unfortunately – were right for inclusion into BEADED TO DEATH. Hmmm. Maybe there should be a sequel.
I am a firm believer that we should learn something from every book we read, no matter how light and fluffy it might be, and that means everything should be as accurate as we can make it. That means research. Yes, we must use our imaginations, but beneath all that ‘what-if’ing there should be a firm grounding of facts.
So, unless your life is a great deal more exciting than mine, research is the order of the day. How else are we going to write what we don’t know?
Janis Susan May Patterson is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who writes mysteries as Janis Patterson, romances and other things as Janis Susan May, children’s books as Janis Susan Patterson and scholarly works as J.S.M. Patterson.
Formerly an actress and singer, a talent agent and Supervisor of Accessioning for a bio-genetic DNA testing lab, Janis has also been editor-in-chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups as well as many other things, including an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist.
Janis married for the first time when most of her contemporaries were becoming grandmothers. Her husband, also an Egyptophile, even proposed in a moonlit garden near the Pyramids of Giza. Janis and her husband live in Texas with an assortment of rescued furbabies.