Write What You Fear

By Jordan Dane

Everyone has heard the line – Write What You Know. When I first heard the line, the first thing that hit me was a question. What the hell did I know that would interest anybody, except my mother who is easy to please? Obviously I didn’t listen to that advice. My debut book was about a woman cop, a far cry from my accountant/commodity energy trader occupation.

Lee Child wrote on an email loop I belonged to in 2008 (of debut thriller authors he mentored as part of the International Thriller Authors debut program) that he thought it should be – Write What You Fear – because books are about emotion. Raw emotions resonate with people. We can all relate to what makes us scared or what we can hate or love. That’s not as intimidating as “write what you know” and hope someone buys it. It doesn’t take special knowledge to write about emotions you feel. It only takes an ability to dig deep, write honestly and find words to express those feelings.

Lee’s words have stayed with me.

Lately I find myself thinking about death. It’s not a subject I know a lot about, but I sure know how it makes me feel. My book ON A DARK WING (Harlequin Teen, Jan 2012) stirred these thoughts in me when I had to envision what a conversation with the Grim Reaper might entail and imagine an afterlife and a role for the Angel of Death. A young girl deals with the grief and guilt she feels after the tragic death of her mother in the book. And this week, a blogger (who will be on a tour stop for the promo of my book) asked for an interview with Death. I’ll be the voice of Death on the day of the blog post when I comment, so followers can ask their own questions. Do I have any idea what I will write? Absolutely not, but I think it’s important to keep challenging myself as an author to delve into areas of my imagination, especially when it’s most difficult.

But there’s a reason I wanted to share why writing about Death and imagining an afterlife has been particularly challenging for me. In my own life, my brother-in-law Michael (my husband’s only brother) is losing his battle with cancer. He’s in hospice now and he’s been in my thoughts and prayers for months. I can’t even imagine what that finality is like for him or his sweet wife and their family.

Sometimes the fiction we write becomes all too real…or too personal.

My post won’t be long today, but I would like to hear from those willing to share. Whether you had a personal tie-in or not, what has been the most difficult scene you’ve written or read in a book? What challenges did you face in writing it? Or why did the scene you read stick with you? Readers and/or writers can respond to this. There are scenes in books that I’ve read long ago, that I can still imagine in my head because they touched something in me that has stayed.

Please share those scenes and books that have stayed with you.

24 thoughts on “Write What You Fear

  1. To harken back to Lee Child’s advice, he followed it himself. He wrote a scene–can’t recall in which book–in which big, burly Reacher has to crawl and slither through a long, constricting tunnel to reach the next step in the story. The scene was so well done I had to put the book down 5 or 6 times during Reacher’s ordeal. In a conversation with LC, I mentioned the scene, telling him how much it impressed me, and about my reaction. He responded that he’s somewhat claustrophobic himself so put himself there, and wrote what terrified him.

  2. Wow. Great example, JJ. By writing that scene, Lee was perhaps exorcising one of his demons. I’m not sure that writing makes them go away, but maybe it’s a step into understanding a perceived weakness. I’ve used my writing in much the same way and I can honestly say it can be a release that’s agonizing to write but it would read so very real on the page. As writers, we torture our characters for the sake of fiction. In Lee’s case, sounds like Jack Reacher wasn’t the only one tormented. Thanks for your comment, JJ.

  3. I don’t know who first said, “write what you know” but I doubt he intended for people to take it as literally as some people do. Our fears are one of the things we know, but I don’t think we should limit ourselves to our fears. There are also things that give us joy and I think our readers will get excited about those things too, if we write about them. Then there are locations and environments. Those of us who grew up in a rural community understand that environment far better than some of the city slickers who only think they know what it’s like. That too is writing what we know and it only helps our writing.

    Or I could look at this another way and say that I completely agree because God is the only thing we have a valid reason to fear, so we should all be writing about God.

  4. There is a scene in one of the Dark Tower novels where a lad is in a basement full of spiders and they are dropping on him and their venom is burning and I have to steel myself to even go into a basement anymore as a result. Brrrrr….If I held to the write what you fear rule, I would write about being in a very small coffin with a transparent bottom, filled with spiders, which was suspended from a very high place.

  5. On my list of major fears, anything to do with harming children or animals makes me terrified. I was watching Gone With The Wind the other night, and had to shut it off right before the scene where Bonnie gets killed.

    On the list of minor fears: I’ve received emails from readers who say that some of the scenes where my character struggles with food resonated with them. This was probably because I wrote what I know. Nothing like being hungry and having to pass a vending machine filled with HoHo’s.

  6. Tim–thanks for your comment. I took Lee’s advice & added other emotions, like you described. I think that was his intention, but fear got everyone’s attention that day.

    I agree that knowing a location helps an author write about it, but seeing a location with fresh eyes, from the perspective of a stranger to it, can be interesting too, and no less valid.

  7. Since I preach that all great fiction is about death (physical, professional or/and psychological) then the “fear of death” ought to be a thread running throughout. Mitch McDeere, Clarice Starling, Holden Caulfield — all of them are facing imminent death.

  8. Ah, the DARK TOWER series. Love it. With my love for sushi, I might have never gone back after reading about monster lobsters that rip off Roland the gunslinger’s fingers. I’d be wishing I had a huge Wasabi cannon. Spiders would get to me, or snakes. Yuck. And triple whammy being inside a coffin hung from above, waiting to get dropped. You should write that one Joe.

  9. That food thing would resonate with people for sure, Kathryn, especially if we write about our secret obsessions & confess through our characters. Oh, man, that could be frightening too.

    And writing about hurting children or animals is not easy. As an author, you can strike a chord that really triggers people’s instincts to protect, but some readers really really don’t like even going there. If you broach those subjects at all, editors get nervous too.

  10. Hey, Jim. That’s a really great analogy about Death & how it can be interpreted. Your comment is going up with other inspirations taped to my computer. Thanks!

  11. Jordan–the scene that is sticking in my mind I haven’t written. It’s a book I must write someday, but not yet. The idea of writing this one really gives me the chills.

    On another note: May I offer my prayers for strength, love and compassion to you, your husband, your brother in law and his family during this challenging time.

    I was with my father over twenty years ago when he lost his battle to cancer. I was humbled by the experience of watching him trade his body for his soul. I will never forget that moment–that mingling of awe and terror for me while aware of the honor to be with Dad as he experienced death. He closed the circle of life like the dignified man he was–leaving us with love to override the pain of his loss. I miss him every day. There’s nothing you can say to make it easy. . . it isn’t and never will be.

    I can only surmise that working through death is like experiencing labor pains before birth. . . only we who stay behind aren’t present for the new life the dying receive. That gives me some small measure of comfort. So, again, I offer courage and peace to you and everyone you love.

    (Hope I didn’t make an ass out of myself on this one!)

  12. An ass? Never, Kathleen. You touched me & helped a great deal. You have no idea. Michael is working through the trading of his body for his soul and finding what peace he can. Thanks so much.

  13. Write what I fear?

    I went to a doctor’s office recently.

    Me: Doc, I’ve got a pretty bad pain in my back. It hurts to sit, hurts to stand. I can’t twist or bend. Man, it’s bad.

    Wife: He’s been pretty whiney doc, what can you do for him?

    Doc: On a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being the worst pain you can imagine, how would you rate your pain?

    Me: (eyes widening) Worst I can imagine?

    Doc: Yes.

    Me: Uh….oh my…..oh God…no…no.

    Doc: Sir?

    Me: (Whimpering, knees curled to chest, hands covering face)… One….its a one.

    Doc: What’s wrong with his imagination?

    Wife: It’s not a normal place.

  14. We definitely know your imagination ISN’T a normal place, Basil. When I think about truly frightening places, I always think of YOU.


  15. Well…
    We’re not supposed to talk about religion, right? Too…controversial?

    As a Family Nurse Practitioner, Jordan, I’ve been present at births, and present at deaths, and the wide range of emotions played out in both scenarios are what make us human.

    Writing about what makes us human has to be the greatest purpose for what our Creator had in mind for us.

    It connects us. It gives us, as readers, a bird’s eye view of how others deal with important issues. It gives us, as writers, an outlet for expression of those emotions.

    That, to me, is the greatest purpose of prose.

    So, writing what you fear is sage advice, probably handed down from someplace Very Important, no matter what choose to you name it.

    Best to your family during this crisis that will undoubtedly reveal emotions no one expects.

    I’d be very interested in your interview with Death – please let us know when it will appear.

    The Scene that sticks with me from reading is from Stephen King’s NEEDFUL THINGS – when the dog got killed. I knew that guy was gonna kill that dog, I just knew it! I can still feel the gut-spasm it pulled out of me when he did it.

    With writing, when my protagonist Evie found herself locked up in the Guest Cottage by the serial killer – that panic, that was Hard to write. Being trapped somewhere by the forces-that-be, my freedom restricted – totally freaks me out.

    Visceral. Emotive. Effective as prose.

    Thanks, Jordan, and everybody for the excellent post and comments.

  16. Hey Paula. Thanks so much for your insight, both personal & about your writing experiences. I know from the things you’ve shared before on this blog that you know how raw emotions can feel if you risk writing about them.

    The interview with Death will be Dec 29 at http://www.thefairytalenerd.com & I think that post has blossomed into a tweetfest or a live chat. YA Bound is hosting the 54+ blogs on this tour that will be held Dec 19-Jan 2. It will be a blast tour format with most posts being reviews, but there will also be character interviews & tweets, book giveaways, special prizes & a grand prize with a live chat. Should be fun!

    Thanks, Paula.

  17. Joe, you had to mention the spiders. Is this my payback for yesterday? I have 3500 square feet of circa 1888 basement and one day, while down there came upon one spider attacking an killing another spider of a different species. Still scares me to think of it. Like the basement in the mill in Graveyard Shift, I think they are evolving down there.

    One reviewer summed it up perfectly, “Stephen King knows there are things under my bed and that they want to kill me.” I actually have a pathological fear of the state of Maine.

    A piece of emotion I trapped a while back and have been trying to find a home for resulted from an occurrence on an elevator at the courthouse. I saw the guard holding the door. Since I was an attorney, we were allowed in the elevators when they were transporting inmates. I turned and the guy in orange was a very young man standing trial in a death penalty case for raping and strangling an 85-year old woman who lived 2 blocks from me. He looked back and locked eyes with me. They were ice blue and as cold and dead as a shark. I couldn’t react, couldn’t let him win . . . I yawned to break eye contact, but, man, that elevator got small and that ride took at least 10 times as long as the sixty seconds it actually lasted.


    PS: He pled and got 50 without parole.

  18. Omg, Terri. Purely evil people really scare me. An FBI profiler turned professor gave a presentation where he shared his first meeting with Charles Manson. You could hear a pindrop in the room when he told us about his eyes & how Manson spewed gibberish that got recorded. Later, after analyzing the recording, it seems Manson had recited the bible backwards–perfectly.

  19. Jordan, this kid had shades of Manson and I’m sure runs his cell block. I had two clients rack up felonies because they were errand runners in jail for this dude.

    I ended up repping his wife on some minor criminal charges. She was a strung-out shell of PTSD. It took several years, but she slowly detoxed and is now doing okay.

    Fear scenes? My grandma used to make me sleep in her back “junk room” full of towering stuff and shadows. The closet teemed with monsters. To “teach” me, I was forbidden to close the closet door at night. So, tales like “Just a Crack” and anything where the monster lives in the closet creeps me to the bone. To this day, um . . . cough . . . many years later, I still can’t sleep with the closet door open.

  20. Oh, wow, Terri. Never would have thought an open closet could be so scary, but I can totally see it. Dean Koontz had me sneaking peeks under hotel beds. It amazes me how words can trigger so much.

  21. Jordan, the scene most recently that stuck with me was in The Lovely Bones. How such horror and such normalcy were placed side by side from the view of the young girl during her final moments. It gripped me with such intensity, more so than if she had written it in all the gruesome details. I had to read it several times. Another scene would be in The Virgin of Small Plains when the father bashed in the face of the girl. I was NOT expecting that and again, had to do a double take and read over!

  22. Hey there, Donna. I’ve resisted THE LOVELY BONES because of things I’ve read in reviews & saw in the movie that I think would be too hard to get out of my head. Like Kathryn mentioned, I have a thing with violence against children & animals. And with the POV being with the girl, that would put it over the top. Great examples of scenes that stick though. Thanks for sharing them.

  23. My take on the old adage “write what you know” is to write about the human emotions that unite everyone – throughout all of history, whatever our station -passion, ambition, fear, suffering, pride, ndifference,
    obsession, envy and resentment, just to name a few. Personally, if I were to confine my work solely to my own experience of life, it would be a very dull book indeed. Writers are reporters, spies, and thieves – I doubt if any of us “live large” except in our minds. I always tell my students that I give my characters sex lives I could only dream about.

Comments are closed.