“Let’s Get Personal” With Special Guest Star Jodi McIsaac


ITFsmall Jodi-081 smallToday we welcome my friend Jodi McIsaac to Magical Words.  I met Jodi this past summer while attending WhenWordsCollide out in Calgary, Alberta.  In addition to being smart, charming, funny, and an excellent drinking partner, Jodi also impressed me with her passion for writing and her eagerness to talk about issues of craft and business.  She is the author of the Thin Veil contemporary fantasy series. The first book, Through the Door, was a #1 Amazon bestseller. Book two, Into the Fire, comes out today.  Jody grew up in New Brunswick, Canada, has been a short track speed skater, a speechwriter, and a fundraiser and marketing executive for a nonprofit. Eventually, she started a boutique copywriting agency and began writing novels in the wee hours of the morning. She currently lives with her husband and two feisty daughters in Calgary.

Please join me in welcoming to MW, Jodi McIsaac! [Cue wild applause]


“Write what you know.”

How many times have we heard those words of wisdom? And it’s true—using our own personal experiences to enrich our writing is solid advice. But some writers—myself included—have taken this adage too far, and found out that if taken too literally, it can restrict our imaginations and compel​ us to write about our own lives, instead of the lives of our characters.

A couple of weeks ago I was speaking at a writers’ conference, and after my workshop a young woman came up to me and confessed that she was having a really hard time with her current work in progress, because she felt as though she had to “write what she knew.” This young woman had suffered a traumatic spinal injury as a child, and so her protagonist also had a spinal injury. “But I don’t like the story,” she confessed. “I have to deal with this every day in my real life—and now also in my creative life. And to be honest, it just makes me sad.”

Fortunately, I could tell her that I understood exactly how she felt. When I first started writing, I tried to do the exact same thing. One of the defining events of my life is that when I was young and naïve, I placed a child for adoption. And so when I started writing my first novel, it was, of course, about a woman who had placed a child for adoption. Who better to write about such a deep personal experience than one who had gone through it, right?

The problem was, I was writing this story because I thought it was the only story I had to tell. I wasn’t writing it because I loved it, or because it was the story burning a hole inside me, trying to get out. And the results were…very mediocre, to tell the truth. My experience was a painful one, and, just like the young woman I met at the conference, trying to incorporate it into my writing made me sad all the time. And for me at least, depression is not conducive to great writing.

But does that mean you should never write about personal experience? Hardly. Our own lives can be a wealth of material for our stories. Much of the time, we can incorporate our own personal experiences into our writing in a subtle way, one that will give our stories the ring of authenticity without making them thinly-veiled autobiographies. There are several ways to do this:

    •    Use snippets of your own experiences to add color and detail to your work. Use an interesting conversation you once had with a stranger, a funny nickname you had when you were younger, a meaningful moment you witnessed or were part of. I’ve used an impromptu trip to New York City, a romantic moment on the streets of London, and a letter from my grandmother to add authentic detail (and some pretty funny stories) to my own work. Truth can be stranger than fiction, right? So don’t be afraid to use it!

    •    Completely change the setting, characters, and plot—but retain that one element that you know better than anyone else. I’m currently writing a story about siblings—the sister is mentally well, and the brother is a paranoid schizophrenic. It just so happens that my own brother is a paranoid schizophrenic, but that doesn’t mean I’m writing the story of our lives. I’ve placed the siblings in a science fiction setting, with a medical drama and completely different goals and backgrounds. But I have an intimate understanding of the dynamics between siblings of differing mental health, and am using that to create a compelling, authentic story about the power of familial love.  

    •    Use your own experience to augment your research. If you’re doctor and write medical thrillers, you’ve got an inside edge over someone who has no experience in the medical profession and has to research it all from scratch. Your personal experience can come in handy when one of your characters needs a vocation, an ethnic background, or an education that you share—just remember that you are writing about them, and not about you.

    •    Tap into the emotion of your own life. Chances are you know what it’s like to feel elated, depressed, furious, eager, or lonely. When we say, “write what you know,” that is what you know. Give those emotions to your character. Even if their experiences are different than yours (as they should be), their emotional responses will resonate with your readers because they’re based on real emotions. For example, in my first novel, Through the Door, the daughter of our protagonist is kidnapped. Fortunately, I’ve never had to go through that horrible experience, but I do know a thing or two about how it feels to lose a child. And so the protagonist’s emotional response to losing her child come across as genuine—because it is. As for my conference friend with the spinal injury, she can still use her experience by writing about a character who has to overcome adversity—it just doesn’t necessarily have to be the exact same kind of adversity she herself has experienced.

“Write what you know” is trusted writing advice for a reason—but that doesn’t mean you have to take it too literally. Let your personal experiences infuse your writing, but not dominate it. Remember, it’s your characters’ story, not your own. Which means you can write many, many stories, all of them ringing with truth and authenticity.



Jodi on Goodreads


11 comments to “Let’s Get Personal” With Special Guest Star Jodi McIsaac

  • The first thing I saw on this post was our photo on the left, and my first thought was, “Why is Carly Rae Jepsen posting on Magical Words?”

    Great advice in your post, thank you for your that. And it looks like I have another set of novels to add to the queue 🙂

  • Welcome, Jodi! (Yaaay, a fellow Canadian!) Happy book birthday! 😀

    These are really great tips. Thank you. What really stands out for me is the reminder that we don’t have to be limiting with the details or restrict the story simply because of what actually happened or is true. That just puts a chokehold on the story, a restriction that can limit the wordflow. But I do really like making my opinions about headphones my current MC’s own, because that one detail adds a dimension to her character.

  • Jodi, Thank you for being here at MW.
    That advice is crucial to writers at any point in their career, and your *big event* example was excellent.

    Thinking about that, I might add that even small events in our lives can take over our thinking and emotions, and while they can sometimes give our writing strength and purpose, they may also poison our story. As a (very) simple small example, the Hubs and I lost our dog Delta in July 2008, and I had to be very careful to not allow that grief process to darken my writing. The loss of a dog doesn’t have the depth of giving up a child for adoption or of spinal cord injury, but I did have to guard against that pain for quite a while.

    I hope to meet you at a Con some day!

  • Good morning, early birds! Dave, your comment nearly made me spit coffee over my keyboard. I’ve heard the comparison before, but now I have short red hair, and just need a new author picture. =)

    Hi Laura! (And thanks for your tweet.) It seems to be a fine balance – using your personal experiences without letting them hijack the story. I use true little details all the time in my work (and my closest friends get a kick out of it), but it’s when I find myself trying to tell my story instead of my characters’ story that I have to rein myself in.

    Faith, I hope to meet you at a Con too someday – I’m a fan. =) And you’re right, it’s not just the big events that can poison our stories (I’m sorry to hear about your dog). Writing can be a good way to deal with our grief (I’ve certainly done that), but then usually those pieces are best kept to ourselves.

  • Great to see you here, Jodi — so glad we were able to put this together and help you publicize the release of INTO THE FIRE. Many years ago — in a span of about 15 months — I lost both of my parents. For a long time the grief crippled me creatively. I really wasn’t able to do anything. But eventually I found that I could use those emotions to inform my writing — not by writing about a person losing his parents, but rather, as you say, by using the emotions to enrich my descriptions of characters going through their own crises. It is a form of creative alchemy, I believe; we are turning pain into art, and thus healing ourselves even as we engage our readers. Thanks for a thought-provoking post. And best of luck with the new book.

  • Thanks for hosting me here, David; I really appreciate it!
    It’s not that I would wish pain on anyone, but it seems that experiencing pain and sorrow is a prerequisite for really understanding the full breadth of human experience — and that understanding makes us better writers (and better people in general, I believe). It’s just too bad there isn’t a short cut!

  • Thank you, Jodi! This is great advice – right now I find myself writing into and out of my experience and back again. My WIP involves an MC whose brother is trying to kill her. My 3 brothers have never tried to kill me, but I do have a bad relationship with one of them. So first I had to admit how personal the story was so I could make my Big Bad real. But in revision I had to back off from that – my MC isn’t me. She deals with conflict very differently than I do, so I had to let her solutions be different than the ones I would try and her emotions different than I would feel.

  • Welcome Jodi! I love this post. When I started writing and kept seeing the advice, “Write what you know,” I thought I was in trouble. My life has been fairly noneventful, which I’m happy about for my sanity and equilibrium, but it would make a terribly boring story. It took me a while to get past the feeling that I had nothing exciting in my life to write about–heck, half the reason I wanted to write stories was to make up a more exciting world than the one I lived in 🙂

  • Hi Sarah! I’m glad you liked the post. You’re right – I think that admitting how personal our stories often become is the first step. Once we acknowledge that, it’s easier to separate ourselves from it and just use the parts of our own experience that make our stories better. And sometimes I find it so hard to remember that my MC might deal with a situation differently than I would, and allow her to do that.

    SiSi, I totally get you — the reason I wrote Through the Door is because I was a stay-at-home mom to two young children and my life was SO BORING. So I wrote a story to bring a little magic into it. =)

  • quillet

    Welcome Jodi! I love this advice, especially for fantasy writers. After all, I don’t “know” any wizards, dragons, or vampires — but I do know wonder, fear, and horror. I love the idea of tapping into real-life emotions to give authenticity to the fantastic (i.e. fun!) stuff. 🙂

  • Quillet, you are so right – if we limited our books to things we actually knew first-hand we’d run out of material pretty quickly, wouldn’t we? =) But everyone has experienced emotion, as you say — we just need to dress it up differently.