What if My Mother Didn’t Love Me? – Writing the Opposite of What You Know by Debra H. Goldstein

My mother loved me, but what if she hadn’t?

Writers write what they know, but sometimes what a writer “knows” isn’t particularly interesting and definitely couldn’t sustain an engaging novel. That’s when writers do what they do best – creative thinking.

For example, I was my mother’s miracle baby – her first successful pregnancy, her brilliant beautiful bubbly daughter (she saw what she wanted to see). She taught me to read, was my Girl Scout leader, cheered me on in whatever activity I chose to try, and beamed with pride when I graduated from college and law school. Even if something didn’t quite go the way I hoped, I always knew my mother was there for me.

In just a few sentences, I’ve summarized enough of our relationship for you, a reader, to know our story and realize it lacks the conflict necessary to build a plot around. But, what if our interaction had been different? Would you find it more interesting if she hadn’t been loving and supportive? If she’d walked out of my life when I was a child without telling me why? What would be the impact of such a family dynamic on the woman I became?

Once these questions crossed my mind, the endless story possibilities intrigued me. Consequently, when I began writing the mother/daughter subplot in my new book, Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery, I chose to reverse what I know and give Carrie a mother who appears out of the blue, twenty-six years after abandoning her family. Within hours of returning and leaving Carrie with a sealed envelope and the knowledge that she once considered killing Carrie’s father, Carrie’s mother is murdered. Compelled to find out why her mother is dead and unravel why she abandoned her, Carrie soon learns that what she was taught to believe and the truth may very well be two different things.

I’m glad my mother loved me. I’m also happy to be a writer who deliberately creates characters and situations opposite to “what I know.” This method may require me to use my imagination and do a bit more research that is never actually seen in the story, but it certainly makes for a far more entertaining read. Don’t you agree?

Judge Debra H. Goldstein is the author of Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery (Five Star Publishing, a division of Cengage – April 20, 2016) and the 2012 IPPY Award winning Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus. Her short stories and essays have been published in numerous periodicals and anthologies, including Mardi Gras Murder and The Killer Wore Cranberry: a Fourth Meal of Mayhem. Debra serves on the national Sisters in Crime, Guppy Chapter and Alabama Writers Conclave boards and is a MWA member. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

Should Have Played Poker introduces Carrie Martin and her fellow sleuths, the Sunshine Village retirement home Mah Jongg players, as they work to uncover the mystery behind her mother’s murder.

Carrie’s life as a young corporate lawyer who is balancing her job and visiting her father at the retirement home is upset when her mother unexpectedly returns 26 years after abandoning her family. Her mother leaves her with a sealed envelope and the confession that she once considered killing Carrie’s father. Before Carrie opens the envelope, she finds her mother murdered and the woman who helped raise her seriously injured.

Instructed to leave the detective work to the police, Carrie and the ladies in the retirement home’s Mah Jongg circle attempt to unravel Wahoo, Alabama’s past secrets, putting Carrie in danger and at odds with a former lover – the detective assigned to her mother’s case.

e-book 9781432831530 also available - April 20, 2016)


Thank you and thank you for having me today. Debra
What an interesting concept to try when writing fiction. It would never have occurred to me. Now, having said that, in my present WIP, I am doing exactly that with a couple of characters.Apparently, I just needed someone to point it out to me. Interesting blog, ladies.
Teresa Inge said…
Great tips on creating compelling characters!
KM Rockwood said…
I do tend to write what I know, and most of my characters come from a composite of people in my background.

That said, I can get so completely into the point of view of the character (I usually write 1st person or very close 3rd person POV, and have only one POV character per work) that it feels to me like I'm writing what I know, even if it is the opposite of what I personally have experienced.

KM Rockwood
Jesse Damon Crime Novels
Linda Thorne said…
Yes, good information. Take a look at the 2016 Killer Nashville conference site (if you haven't already). You and my good friend, Robert Mangeot, and the people on that panel from last year are portrayed. You can't buy press that good, and I'm sure this came free.
Excellent post chock full of great advice. Thanks Debra :)
Carolyn Mulford said…
A good post. Many readers don't realize the fascination of writing about people very different from us.
I really believe most writers tend to write the opposite of what they know once they realize whatever gave them the seed of an idea couldn't sustain the story. Thanks for your comment.
I just realized my response dropped to the bottom...the one above was a response to Jackie. Now, I'm going to answer all of you in one box :). Thanks Teresa. To me the key is developing a character that is engaging - even if disliked. KM, I understood you writing about what you know because it has such an interesting twist. For most of us, your character is the opposite of what we know - and you nail him. Carolyn, I think there is a fascination, even in everyday life, with people who are different than us. The key is whether we embrace or are afraid of the difference -- and that works for being a character in a story, too. Joanne, thank you for your praise. I value it. Finally, Linda, I saw it recently and was tickled. Bob looked great! And the rest of us were along for the ride -- definitely good pr and much appreciated especially since I guested for Kevin's Corner recently and he posted a headshot that showed right under the moving picture --- it was like having a personal caption. It is great to be on that screen....and it is great to be Marilyn's guest today. Again, thank you all for leaving a comment. They mean so much to me.
Nancy J. Cohen said…
I've always interpreted the "Write what you know" as referring to emotions. We've all experienced a range of emotions in our lives, irregardless of where we've been or what our backgrounds. It's these emotional reactions we draw upon in writing our stories. The other stuff can be researched.
Interesting point. I hadn't quite looked at it in that vein. I think that holds true for the complete picture...but there are times we have to draw on emotions we've never had. Of course, we may end up borrowing someone else's experience for that purpose.
Kathy McIntosh said…
I think some writers, like me, enjoy exploring the dark side, characters whose acts are nothing we ourselves would do. But Nancy's point about emotions rings true. We may feel a certain way but act on that emotion far differently than the characters we create. They have more scope, because they're fictional!
Nice post.

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