SHE CAN’T COOK
“She can’t cook.”
“She can’t cook?”
“No, but oh, my, what a wife.”
The above is from one of my favorite movies, “Christmas in Connecticut,” 1945, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan (one of my personal favorite hunky actors). In the story Stanwyck plays a writer who pens a recipe column for a woman’s magazine. The hook is that she can’t cook and gets all her recipes from a good friend, a chef.
What does this have to do with writing? You’ve all heard the old adage, “write what you know.” Clearly, the Barbara Stanwyck character didn’t know how to cook. But she knew someone who did and his expertise helped her to write a successful and realistic column. She may not have known how to cook, but her recipes were true .
With good research a writer can write on a variety of subjects, even those for which she has no firsthand knowledge. I agree, to a point. But I believe that to write compelling stories a writer has to “write what you know,” or at least “write what you know something about.”
For instance, the first book I wrote was set on a ranch in Wyoming. I’ve never been on a ranch and the only time I was in Wyoming was when our train passed through Cheyenne and Laramie on its way to California when I was thirteen. In the book my heroine is an interior decorator. I know nothing, absolutely nothing, about decorating. Come to my house and I’ll prove it. My hero in that story is an American Indian polo pony trainer. Is there even such a person? I’d been to one polo game in my life. I did a little research on Wyoming and polo ponies, but not enough to make anything ring true . Is it any wonder that book never sold?
I resisted writing what I knew because what I knew was boring. I was a corporate drone and cubicle dweller in quiet, boring Wilmington, Delaware. No excitement there. A ranch in Wyoming filled with delicious cowboys and spirited horses was much more exotic, at least to me. It never crossed my mind that someone living in rural Idaho might find Wilmington a little bit exotic.
I finally bit the bullet and gave into the inevitable. My second book was set in Wilmington. I know Wilmington, boring as it is. My heroine is a caterer. I’m not much of a cook, but at least my family doesn’t starve. And I can open a jar of pasta sauce faster than I can tell you how to train polo ponies. My caterer story became my first published book, “A Catered Affair,” from Avalon. I wrote about a place I know, about food, which we all know and love, and I tapped into old feelings--how I felt as a teen when the guy I worshipped insulted me in front of the whole class. My hero and heroine reconnect and are given a second chance to make things right. The story was cathartic for me too. I was able to let go of an old hurt.
My short story, “Chef’s Choice,” available in March 2009 from New Love Stories magazine, is about two chefs. As I stated before, I’m no gourmet cook, but I like food. This story, set in a place I know—-the Philadelphia suburbs--also deals with two people reconnecting after years apart.
My second published book, “Logan’s Redemption,” from The Wild Rose Press, is set in the corporate offices of a large Philadelphia company. I grew up in the corporate world. And I know Philadelphia. Like the others, this is also a reunion story.
Do you see a theme here? Not only have I written about places I know, but I used a very real universal desire—-to go back and right old wrongs.
What about those authors who make up their own worlds for paranormal fiction? These authors know their worlds as well as if they lived in them. They see every building, every tree, every inhabitant, in their minds, and sometimes on storyboards. But each fictional world contains a little of the real world, a little of what the author already knows. And the best authors give their characters, whether beings from a distant planet, or small-town neighbors, real hopes and fears and dreams.
So what’s my point? With thorough research, a writer can write on any subject. But research can only take you so far. There has to be truth in your story. The feelings must be real, the setting should come to life because you, as the writer, know the setting, even if you’ve made up a fictional town or country or planet. Know what you’re writing about and your readers will buy into your story.
A famous chef once advised that cooks must always put a part of themselves into everything they cook. The same for stories. Put a part of yourself into everything you write.
Maybe someday, readers will say about me, “She can’t cook, but oh, my, what a writer.”