by Brenda Stanley
Write what you know. It is the first rule aspiring authors often hear. Using your own experiences in your writing gives your work the authenticity readers expect. It’s why I base most of my novels in the areas where I’ve lived or worked.
I grew up in the small Utah city where my mystery novel, The Still Small Voice, is based. While I haven’t lived there in almost forty years, I set the story during the time when I did, and then, took a trip back to stir the memories of what I’d experienced while living there.
The main character of my novel is a woman named Madison Moore, who is returning home after being estranged from her family for years. She is summoned back by her dying father, who then tells her about a murder years before and that he has proof the woman in prison is not the killer. This has Madison in the center of a decades-old mystery and reliving painful memories that have kept her away from her family and the place she used to call home. While my own experiences don’t mirror Madison’s, there is much in the novel that does.
There is nothing like seeing the incredible scenery of the Wasatch Mountains. The towering peaks are so immense, and the colors of the seasons flow across them seamlessly. As I stood there after decades of being away and looked up at them, I was surprised at how much I had taken their grandeur for granted.
Homes now spread out from the base of the mountains, and what used to be vast orchards of apples and cherries are now office buildings and businesses. Progress has come to what was once a rural farming community, and while the geography may be different, not everything has changed.Most people living in the Utah Valley are members of the predominant religion: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons. They are conservative, close-knit, and family oriented. Their beliefs follow a gospel and strict guidelines that often have those who are not members or have decided to leave the church feeling ostracized.
I grew up in the LDS church, and while I am no longer a member, I didn’t leave Utah because of my experiences with the religion. My reasons for leaving the church began long before I left the state of Utah for a job. My parents and brothers also moved from the area, so I’ve rarely returned to the place I once called home. Going back made me realize what an impact all these things have had on my life and my writing.
In the novel, Madison must navigate through her past tragedy that led to her family’s divide while trying to find the truth about a murder that happened decades before. Her devotion to her father’s dying wish is complicated by the pain she still endures from being cast out.
For those who’ve never lived around or within these specific cultural circles, it can be challenging to understand how powerful those feelings and influences can be. However, regardless of where you live in the world, when it comes to generational beliefs and family dynamics…when you don’t toe the line, few things in life can be as powerful or as painful as being cast out.
In the novel, past events have Madison still feeling rejection and shame when she first arrives back at her childhood home. But as she searches through her father’s clues regarding the murder, she begins to see how her life and the woman in prison share similar heartaches. Madison must decide if it’s possible to escape the ghosts of her past or allow them to continue their hold over her.
Going home can bring many emotions, both happy and sad. It can also stir up experiences that have affected our lives even without realizing it. They say home is where the heart is, and that may be true, even when that heart is broken.
Drawing on what you know is what writers do. Including places and times from your past can give clarity and detail to your writing as well as your life.
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