“Writing about what you know… when you don’t really know it” by Shelly Ellis

Shelly Ellis is the author of the women’s fiction/contemporary romance, Can’t Stand the Heat, which was just released by Kensington on April 30th. She’s here to talk about how an only child wrote a book about sisters. She’s also sharing an excerpt, which is below, and she’s giving away two signed ARCs — one each to the first two commenters with a US or Canadian address. Welcome, Shelly!

shelly eliis, can't stand the heat, women's fiction, contemporary romance, multicultural

A book about sisters?

But you’re an only child!

What would you know about sisters?”

Hi, everyone and thanks, Jill, for letting me guest blog today!

Almost everyone has heard the old adage, “Write what you know.” (Yes, I can almost hear you paranormal authors out there laughing hysterically at that one.) Frankly, I’ve always paid it little attention. I figured if I only wrote based on what I’ve experienced my repertoire of fictional work would be pretty limited. But when I embarked on my first women’s fiction series, it was the first time the old adage gave me pause. I knew I wanted the novels, the first of which is Can’t Stand the Heat, to be about a group of women who seduce men for money and gradually learn the error of their ways through love and a series of mishaps. I also knew I wanted the women to be sisters. I thought having a family of women that was so eccentric that they invented an unwritten gold-digging rule book that every one of the sisters could quote by heart would add humor to the story.

But the really funny part wasn’t in the novel. It was when I told people the premise of my books. They didn’t say, “But you’re not a gold digger. How could you possibly write about that?” No, instead I got, “A book about sisters? But you’re an only child! What would you know about sisters?”

I had to come up with a good answer for that one.

I like to refer to writers as anthropologists with wild imaginations. I think the best authors are not only great researchers, but also people observers who make mental notes of cultural differences, social quirks, and general human behavior. I’ve been doing this “anthropological work” since I was young without even realizing it, got better at it when I later became a reporter, and learned to adapt it into my fictional writing.

So, my response to their question was, “Yes, I did grow up as an only child, but my mother didn’t.” She grew up in a family of five boisterous sisters. Being from a close-knit family, I got to study their sisterly dynamics over the years and witness the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ve seen the endless back-biting, the changing alliances, and the competitiveness. But I also witnessed the playfulness, the humor, and the strong sense of camaraderie. No matter how bad things got between my mother and her sisters — in the end — they all knew they had each other’s backs. Those types of dynamics are a gold mine for novel. How could I not write about it just because I hadn’t experienced it firsthand?

So should authors write what they know? Sure! It could be a good starting point for some compelling stories. But venturing out to what you’ve observed and even what can imagine also makes for a great adventure and can lead to exciting fictional work.

More About Can’t Stand the Heat

If there’s a man with money around, a Gibbons girl can’t be far behind… or at least that’s how the saying goes in the small, prosperous, scenic town of Chesterton, Virginia.

There, the eccentric Gibbons sisters have a well-earned reputation as a family of shameless gold diggers. For the past three generations, the women in their family have found ways to scheme and seduce men out of their money. They even have an unwritten gold digging “rule book” by which the whole family operates and must abide. But Lauren, the youngest member of the Gibbons clan, believes it’s time for a change and to throw the old rule book out the window. On the way to finding herself, Lauren also discovers a new love with retired NFL player Crisanto Weaver.  But the small-town rumor mill — and her own sisters — aren’t ready for the new Lauren. Between her conniving relatives, her vengeful ex, and a mountain of debt, can Lauren escape her old life, and create something new?

Excerpt from Can’t Stand the Heat

“Should I . . . should I start plating the entrées?” Lauren asked. She turned from the stove, wiped her hands on a dishcloth, and faced her first new client, the ex-Dallas Cowboy/millionaire Cris Weaver.

He had been standing about ten feet behind her for the past hour and a half, observing her while she cooked. He said he wanted it to be part of the evening: Lauren doing her kitchen voodoo while everyone else at the party watched her work, like they were watching a show.

Whatever, she had thought flippantly on the phone as he made his request. You’re the one writing the check, sweetheart. Short of me wearing a thong bikini while I’m cooking, I’m game for just about anything at this point.

Her casual attitude disappeared, though, when she realized he would be staring at her the whole time she cooked. Knowing his dark eyes were on her had been unnerving, but miraculously she had managed to not burn herself or set his kitchen on fire.

“Or I can hold off serving the entrées for a bit . . . until your guests arrive. The meat shouldn’t dry out if you want to wait.” She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s up to you.”

Cris propped his elbow against the kitchen island’s granite countertop, shifted on his leather stool, and took a sip of red wine. “No, you can go ahead if it’s done. I have no idea when they’ll get here. I might as well start without them.” He grinned. “The food smells too good not to eat.”

He certainly was in good spirits for a man who was throwing a party and not one guest had shown up.

If it was me, I’d be pissed, Lauren thought as she glanced at the two porcelain platters covered with appetizers. Most of them—dates wrapped in applewood bacon and stuffed with blue cheese, deviled eggs filled with crabmeat ravigote, and white pork boudin balls—still sat untouched. It looked like the price of his dinner was quickly escalating from $875 a plate to $3,500 a plate with every minute that guests didn’t arrive. She felt bad for the guy.

Lauren pursed her lips. “All right. Well, I guess you can go ahead and sit at your dinner table. I’ll bring the food to you in about two minutes.”

“You’re serving me, too?”

Lauren opened his oven to reveal a bubbling pan filled with pork chops. The room suddenly filled with the food’s intoxicating aroma. “Sure, why not? You’re paying a lot of money for this.” She used both ends of the dish towel to tug the pan out of the oven without burning her hands. She set it on the stove top. “I may as well give you the full service, right?”

Really? And what does the ‘full service’ include exactly?”

At those words, the hairs started to prick on the back of her neck. A delicious thrill went down her spine.

Shelly Ellis
Shelly Ellis

Where to buy Can’t Stand the Heat

Where to find Shelly online

Writers, do you always write what you know or do you take chances and push yourself to write about characters in situations you’ve never personally experienced? If so, what sources do you use to give your writing verisimilitude? For my Noon Onyx series, I tapped into my personal experiences with law school, legal concepts, and justice symbols to come up with some of the scenes and story ideas, but the parts that have been the most fun to write about are those I’ve had no experience with. Readers, do you think Lauren’s appetizers sound as good as I do? The first two commenters will receive a signed ARC from Shelly. (US and Canada only).

Bonus giveaway! I’m giving away books from my personal collection (sharing the book wealth!). Interested? Enter to win by commenting below. Extra entries for sharing a link to this post on Twitter and/or Facebook. (But you gotta include my Twitter handle @archer_jill and tag me on FB for me to track your entries!). US only.

Hope everyone is having a great week! I’m still deep in my writing cave, furiously working on Noon Onyx B3. But Fiery Edge of Steel is coming out at the end of this month, so I’ll be posting some more information on that very soon! Happy Friday, all!

Thank you, Shelly, for guest blogging today!

Published by

Jill Archer

Jill Archer is the author of the Noon Onyx series, genre-bending fantasy novels including DARK LIGHT OF DAY, FIERY EDGE OF STEEL, WHITE HEART OF JUSTICE, and POCKET FULL OF TINDER.

14 thoughts on ““Writing about what you know… when you don’t really know it” by Shelly Ellis

  1. Forgot to post the winner here earlier… Casey Wyatt, you won a book from my personal collection. I’ll send you an e-mail with the list. Thank you, everyone, for the comments!

  2. If I only wrote about what I knew, most of what I wrote wouldn’t exist. I wonder what Tolkien thought of that concept? Keeping in mind that personal experience is always a better reference point, I still opt for those things that can only come from pure imagination to enhance a story. Some stories are based completely on such wild ideas.

    Congratulations on your release, Shelly. Oh, and for anyone who hasn’t tried them, bacon-wrapped-cheese-stuffed-dates are the best appetizer ever.

    1. Hi Shamus! Hope all is well up in the Garden State! Replying late bc I’ve been under the weather. 😦

      I love Shelly’s approach to writing. Use what you know as a starting point and then expand to what you’ve observed and can imagine. Of course, I’m also open to stories that are full of wild ideas!

      Haven’t yet tried the bacon-wrapped-cheese-stuffed-dates but am wondering if Wegman’s sells them. You know I’m a terrible cook. Maybe Craig will make them for me… 😀

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. I write paranormal romance and urban fantasy. Like Jill, I don’t have actual, firsthand knowledge of supernatural beings, I have to make it all up. But since I have a degree in anthropology and psychology (thank you American University!), they have come in handy. Like you, I’ve always been an observer and it sure comes in handy as a writer. Congratulations on your release! The books sounds awesome!

    1. Hi Casey– Replying late due to spring cold that morphed into sinus infection. You know how it is… you only get sick when you have no time for it and your to do list is always the longest the week before vacation, right? 🙂

      I wish I had an anthropology and psychology degree. They would definitely come in handy in creating all sorts of characters — paranormal and otherwise. Thanks for the visit. Glad you enjoyed Shelly’s guest post!

  4. Three cheers for parents large boisterous families, Shelly. They allow a glorious window for observation, along with an escape hatch…home. Our poor parents didn’t have the luxury of getting away from the mayhem, but it made them the wonderful, slightly quirky, people they are today. Congratulations on Can’t Stand the Heat! It sounds wonderfully hot and funny!

    1. Hi Megan– Replying late due to fighting off nasty spring cold (not to mention family obligations and writing deadlines!) I come from a small family, but my husband’s is big and everyone has a lot of fun when they get together. Thanks for stopping by!

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