I needed one of my minor characters to be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. It would provide sufficient motivation for another character to do something she would never have even considered otherwise. But which should I choose?
I knew virtually nothing about any of them that scrolled by. That meant I’d need to do plenty of research to make sure I understood the illness enough to get the details right. Even then, however, I’d be guessing when it came to how a person and his family would respond and what a realistic progress of the disease might be, as well as its impact on a family.
My mind spun with the thought of all the information I would need in order to weave together a realistic situation that my readers would be able to empathize with.
That’s when I realized the wisdom of the advice commonly quoted among authors circles: Write what you know. In my situation, what I knew was lung cancer. My family experienced the shock when my dad was diagnosed, the waiting and watching as he went through months of chemotherapy, the euphoria of hearing that the treatment had worked, then the dark days when we learned that it had spread elsewhere in the body. It was something I knew, and I had a well full well of emotions and experiences to pull from.
As I added scenes to my story where the doctor informed my character of the diagnosis, he begins chemotherapy, and the whole family deals with the side effects, I found myself transported back to the time in my life when my own family experienced these things. The emotions welled up naturally, and flowed out through my words. When tears blurred my vision as I wrote a description of the doctor’s office from the perspective of someone who might be facing death soon, I knew I’d made the right choice.
An unnatural stillness blanketed the room. At first glance, the crowded oncologist’s waiting room resembled any other. Padded chairs lined walls hung with large pictures, and a selection of magazines littered several end tables. But the subtle differences thickened her throat. Everyone sat in pairs: the patients next to the loved ones who were suffering from—maybe dying from—cancer. Those who spoke did so in the hushed tones used at a funeral home.
Including in my novel something I knew so intimately allowed me to infuse those scenes with a realism that spoke to readers. It pulled on the heartstrings in a way I never would have been able to create if I’d just picked an illness from the list and done some research about it. If I hadn’t been a believer in the phrase to write what you know before, I am an ardent believer now.
Suzanne Hartmann writes Christian suspense novels with a twist of the unusual. Besides plot twists at the speed of a stock car race, her Fast Track Thriller series includes the unusual background of NASCAR tracks. You can find her novels Peril and Conspiracy online at Amazon and Christian Book Distributors.
Suzanne is also the editorial director with Castle Gate Press, and always on the lookout for well-written fiction with a twist of the fantastic.