One Way to Write What You Know
People told me, “Write what you know,” and I thought, “Well, that sounds boring.”
But I’ve since discovered ways to follow that advice. We can put our personal emotions into our characters and use them for different purposes. We can pull bits from one facet of our lives, add pieces from other aspects, stir them up, and sprinkle them throughout a story to good effect.
After I self-published my first novel, a paranormal thriller called Something Radiates, friends who read it kept saying to me, “This book is about you and your ex-husband, isn’t it?”
“My exes were bad,” I would say, “but they weren’t supernatural stalkers.”
Still, the truth is that my two ex-husbands were abusive to me in different ways. One was controlling and tried to squelch my intellect. He burned my poetry, saying I was on an ego trip. The second ex had a serious mean streak that first emerged in increasingly cutting remarks. Then, he lost it and beat my kids. He came damned close to pushing me down a steep flight of stairs. I was frozen in fear, but he did me an enormous favor and dumped me.
Once I was free of these men, I got my revenge by taking the worst aspects of each of them, smooshing them together, adding supernatural abilities, and ramping them into overdrive to create a truly creepy villain for Something Radiates. It was healing for me to make my villain even worse than my exes, especially when the villain gets his comeuppance in the end.
I also used my experience of falling in love with a good man, my longtime current husband, to write a romance for my protagonist—the best kind of revenge. And I set the novel in Baton Rouge, where I once lived, with a trip to a cave near Boulder, where I’d camped out long ago. The novel is loaded with hippie spiritual lore and belief systems that have always fascinated me.
In my next novel, If Darkness Takes Us, and its standalone sequel, If the Light Escapes, a solar pulse destroys the U.S. grid, and the characters must survive with no power, cars, phones, or running water. Many reviews for If Darkness mentioned that I must have done a lot of research to describe the details of their lives so well. But when I was much younger, I’d lived off the grid for many years by choice, in a vegan hippie community where my sons were delivered by midwives. I didn’t have to research it. I lived it. And I set both novels in an altered version of my own Austin, Texas, neighborhood.
In If Darkness, which is narrated by a grandmother named Bea who’s raising her grandkids in an apocalypse, I was able to draw on my experiences with love and divorce as well as my twenty-eight years of raising five sons, plus several more years of being a grandmother. I also gave Bea some health issues I’m familiar with. While she is similar to me in certain ways, she’s her own woman with plenty of differences, too.
For If the Light, which is narrated by Bea’s eighteen-year-old grandson Keno, I believe his heroic nature and casual-cussing voice came straight from those sons of mine, tempered by the college students I worked with for fifteen years. Keno was waiting inside me to be let loose. It was astonishing how fast his words spewed out of me. And as I delved deeper into his character, he revealed even richer veins of heroism, intellect, and moral conviction. I have watched many young men come of age in my life, but seeing Keno do it in an apocalypse made my heart bleed.
I have a novel in development that will call on my experience living in the woods of the Ozark Mountains, on my attraction to Eastern religions, and on the time that I spent living communally. For all my fiction, I pull character emotions from the various ways I have felt them myself or have observed them in others.
The best advice I can give to any writer is to dive into life and live it to its fullest. Then you will have no shortage of tales to tell and experiences to draw from, whether your characters dwell in alternative worlds or come straight out of history. And your stories will never be boring.
If The Light Escapes
by Brenda Marie Smith
GENRE: Sci-fi (post-apocalyptic)
A standalone sequel to IF DARKNESS TAKES US
A solar electromagnetic pulse fried the U.S. grid fourteen months ago. Everything’s gone: power, cars, running water, communications, all governing control and help—gone. Now northern lights have started in Texas—3,000 miles farther south than where they belong. The universe won’t stop screwing with eighteen-year-old Keno Simms.
All that’s left for Keno, his family and neighbors is farming their Austin subdivision, trying to eke out a living on poor soil in the scorching heat. Keno’s still reeling from the the death of his pregnant sister. His beloved Nana is ill, Grandpa’s always brandishing weapons, and water is far too scarce. Desperate thieves are hemming them in, yet he can’t convince his uncle and other adults to take action against the threat.
Keno’s one solace is his love for Alma, who has her own secret sorrows. When he gets her pregnant, he vows to keep her alive no matter what. Yet armed marauders and nature itself collude against him at every turn, forcing him to make choices that rip at his conscience. If he can’t protect Alma and their unborn child, it will be the end of Keno’s world.
IF THE LIGHT ESCAPES is post-apocalyptic science fiction set in a near-future reality, a coming-of-age story told in the voice of a heroic teen who’s forced into manhood too soon.
Bright green lights stream and pulse across the northern sky all night now, growing from thin and wispy to bold and fat, expanding, contracting, sending out bands of yellow streamers like they’re partying on ecstasy at some cosmic rave. The lights are pretty, and they’re hypnotic, and they creep me out to the core.
Northern lights every night for two solid weeks in Texas. Halfway to the equator from where they belong. They’re supposed to be a phenomenon tied to the magnetic poles—it’s a scientific fact.
Nothing is right about this. The only explanation I can think of is that the north and south poles are shifting. I don’t know what that means for the planet and the future of its creatures. We don’t have TVs or talking-head scientists to tell us...
The universe just won’t stop f**king with us.
Today, I’m hoeing corn in our front yard, sweat stinging my eyes. It’s blistering hot out here—early December in what used to be high-tech Austin, until the … sun zapped us with an electromagnetic pulse and took our power, our cars, the damned running water. It stopped pretty much everything—everything modern, that is.
It’s been fourteen months, and all the front yards in our subdivision are mini-cornfields now. We grow beans and veggies in the backyards. It’s a desperate attempt to keep us alive when our food stockpiles run out. Don’t know if it will work, but I’m doing my damnedest to make sure it does.
Brenda Marie Smith lived off the grid for many years in a farming collective where her sons were delivered by midwives. She’s been a community activist, managed student housing co-ops, produced concerts to raise money for causes, done massive quantities of bookkeeping, and raised a small herd of teenage boys.
Brenda is attracted to stories where everyday characters transcend their own limitations to find their inner heroism. She and her husband reside in a grid-connected, solar-powered home in South Austin, Texas. They have more grown kids and grandkids than they can count.
Her first novel, Something Radiates, is a paranormal romantic thriller; If Darkness Takes Us and its sequel, If the Light Escapes, are post-apocalyptic science fiction.