Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sisters and Writing What You Know

(I wrote this for a guest spot on Teresasreadingcorner blog.) 

Readers often assume that novels are, at least in part, autobiographical, perhaps because writing instructors through the ages have compelled writers to “write what they know,” i.e., their own lives. I once wrote a short story about a hairdresser. My professor asked me if I’d ever been one. I have not. “Write about something else,” he snapped. While I’ve never been a hairdresser, I’ve certainly been to a hairdresser⎯on more than one occasion. I decided that qualified and wrote the story. I thought it came out pretty well. Now I have written a novel about sisters. Ask me if I have sisters. I do not. Not even one. 

So why did I choose to write about sisters when I don’t have one? Because the subject interests me. I am a sister (I have a brother) and I know lots of women who have them. My mother had three (and two brothers). It was her relationship with her youngest sister (younger by sixteen years) that served as the basis for the main characters in my novel. At times my mother and aunt seemed like the most intimate of friends, at other times, because of the age difference, almost like mother and daughter. There were also times when they seemed like rivals, although I wasn’t clear what the rivalry was about. Watching them, I began to wonder what it might take to drive sisters apart (my characters have been estranged for forty years) and what it might take to bring them back together. 

Sisters have a shared childhood history, even when their childhoods (as was the case for my aunt and mother) aren’t shared. This shared history forges a bond stronger than even the closest friendship. As one friend (who has a sister) told me, “your sister knows about your childhood traumas better than anyone.” But, I argued, you can say that about all siblings. She thought a moment and said, “With sisters there’s more competition.” 

Ah, competition. This had the ring of truth to it. This is what I saw between my mother and aunt. I felt a certain amount of competition with my brother, but he was bigger, older and, well, a boy; we were on different journeys. Same sex siblings are on the same journey. I think my aunt chose to give up rather than compete with my mother, but I think the challenge was always there, and I’m not sure she was always happy with her decision. 

Writers don’t have to stick to “what they know,” because writers draw their material, not only from observation, but also from imagination and investigation. I got to observe, investigate, and imagine what it’s like to have a sister. If you read HER SISTER’S SHADOW, please leave a comment below, or email me at and let me know if I got it right.