Graduate’s Corner: The Dangers of Writing What You Know by Barbara Ashford

A lot of Barbara Ashford’s life ended up in the pages of her new fantasy novel Spellcast. Like Maggie Graham, she grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, began performing at an early age, and–after a series of jobs in educational administration–ran away to the theatre.

Barbara worked as an actress in summer stock and dinner theatre and later, as a lyricist and librettist. She’s written everything from cantatas to choral pieces, one-hour musicals for children to full-length ones for adults.

After several attempts at writing a novel, she attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2000. It provided the supportive feedback and immersion in the craft of writing speculative fiction that she needed to create Heartwood, the first book of her Trickster’s Game trilogy. Published by DAW Books, Trickster’s Game went on to become a finalist for the Mythopoeic Society’s 2010 Fantasy Award for adult literature.

Spellcast is her first contemporary fantasy and is inspired by her years as an actress. You can visit Barbara at her websites: http://www.barbaraashford.com and at http://www.barbara-campbell.com .


Writers of speculative fiction rarely follow the old adage “write what you know.” We’re writing about worlds that exist in Rod Serling’s “middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.”

My first novel told the tale of a Bronze Age hunter who embarks on a quest to save the world from eternal winter. About the only things I had in common with Darak were control issues and cold feet. So I researched, researched, researched and by the time I finished writing, I knew a lot more about making fire bundles, fishing traps, and snares than most city dwellers.

When I turned to contemporary fantasy with Spellcast, I figured I had it made. For once, I was writing about something I knew: the world of summer stock theatre. I drew on my years as an actress to create the Crossroads Theatre and poured much of my life into the protagonist’s, even going so far as to have Maggie grow up in my hometown.

Writing in first person brought Maggie even closer. My voice became her voice, so much so that my husband–always my first reader–had trouble offering feedback because he felt like he was critiquing me rather than the story.

The opening chapter flowed as easily as one of the monologues I had performed as an actress, but I hit a snag as I was fleshing out Maggie’s backstory. In particular, I couldn’t get a grip on the character of her father. Although he never appears in the book, I wanted him to be a key figure in shaping Maggie’s attitudes about magic, make believe, and men.

First, I decided he would die when Maggie was a child. Then he was going to be remarried and “out of touch” with his first family. Neither scenario felt right. More importantly, neither worked in terms of Maggie’s arc.

That’s when I realized that I had put so much of myself into Maggie that the lines between fact and fiction had blurred. I was unable to make her father unsympathetic because it felt like a betrayal of my father.

The realization shocked me. How many times had I reminded aspiring authors that characters are the tools that we use to achieve our storytelling ends? And that secondary characters are in a story first and foremost because of the light they shed on the protagonist’s nature and journey?

I completely lost sight of that–and I lost the critical distance every writer needs.

After that “Aha!” moment, I was able to move forward. There are still elements of my father in Jack–his playfulness, his imagination–but I chose them deliberately because they helped shape Maggie. I even allowed Maggie to experience similar difficulties in discovering a character when she struggles to get a grip on one of the roles she has to perform.

Reestablishing those boundaries helped focus Spellcast and reminded me that, however much we love our characters, we have to be ruthless about using them – creating some, discarding others, and controlling the unruly ones to achieve our storytelling ends.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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