Stories that Matter

Write What You Know?

You’ve heard it a million times. Write what you know. I’m sure the reasons behind the saying are sound. You can bring knowledge and authenticity to any subject you are on familiar ground with. But for most of us, we don’t write what we know. We take what we know and expound on it. We delve deep into unchartered waters, searching for a story unlike what we know, because we think what we know is, well, pretty boring.

Most of my books have nothing to do with my life. Yesterday’s Tomorrow takes place during the Vietnam War. I was itty bitty at the time and really knew nothing about this era. I researched like crazy, God put a story in my heart, and a book was born. I’m sure for a lot of authors, that’s how their books come to life as well.

Not so with my upcoming second novel, Hidden in the Heart. While I often say that Yesterday’s Tomorrow was the book of my heart, this book is the story in my heart. In essence, it is my story.

In 2001, I made the decision to search for my birth mother. I grew up knowing I was adopted, never really wanted to search, even after I was married and had children of my own. Curious? Sure. But not enough to do anything about it.

And then my Mom died. My dad remarried, and suddenly life wasn’t so simple anymore. Suddenly I wanted to know where I came from. I wanted to know what genes I had passed on to my children and whether we had anything to be concerned about medically. I made up a dozen excuses for the reasons behind the sudden need to know, but mostly it came down to this.

When I looked in the mirror I wanted to know who was looking back at me.

“You existed before you were adopted.” 

This is the tag line for Hidden in the Heart. I found the saying on one of the adoption search and reunion websites I frequented while I was looking for information. My search did not take long, and I connected with my birth mother fairly quickly. What I didn’t know and was in no way prepared for, was the emotional roller-coaster ride I was about to embark on. A ride that lasted almost three years, full of ups and downs, twists and turns and sudden plunges that make The Tower of Terror look like It’s A Small World.

At the end of it all, through the grace of God, I had a story to tell. A story of heartache, hope and healing. Of forgiveness and the freedom it brings. At first I was afraid to write it down. Afraid to let my feelings out. But I knew I needed to. I knew somehow, that it was to be part of my healing.

Hidden in the Heart is a work of fiction. I have taken artistic license with many of the events that happened along my journey, and I have made some up. But the emotion throughout this book is real. And still, eleven years later, a little raw.

They say write what you know.

I did.

Not knowing whether this book would ever be published, I wrote it anyway. This year, hopefully in the next few months, it will be. And I hope it will minister to others in the adoption community or anyone who wrestles with family struggles.

I thought I’d share with you an excerpt – a particularly difficult scene for me to write – as I said, this is from my heart. To yours.



“So, it’s true then? You think I’m your birth mother?”

No, I know you are. Claire blew air through pursed lips and tried to summon rational thought. “The facts line up. And there appear to be physical similarities.”

“When were you born?”

Claire rattled off the date, feeling numb.

“My papers say Hartford Hospital.”

The pause that followed gave Claire time to catch her breath. Time to think of a thousand things to say but she lacked courage to speak them. The silence dragged on and again she thought Michelle had hung up.

“I was thinking about you on Friday.” The words slammed Claire and took her breath away. “But I was too afraid to call. Too afraid my mother was right. And then I got the message about Darcie…I don’t know what’s going on anymore.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sure it’s a shock.” Claire couldn’t voice her feelings.

“Why did you want to find me?” Michelle finally spoke again, her initial cool tone returning. “Does the fact that I gave you up not tell you all you need to know?”

Claire recoiled at the cold, clipped words and shrank back in her chair. “No. Not really. I wanted to know who you were. Where I came from. I wanted…I want to know why you gave me up.”

“Why do you think? Because you were a mistake! Does that answer your question? I was a stupid college kid who didn’t know any better. That’s all there is to it. You had a good life, didn’t you? I was told your parents were very wealthy.”

“I had a good life, yes,” Claire replied, almost whispering. “My parents loved me very much. But I always wondered.”

“So you figure you have a right to mess with my life just to satisfy your curiosity, is that it?”

“No. I…I’m sorry. I didn’t think about it like that. I thought you…I thought you might…want to know about me too.”

“Well, you thought wrong. If I wanted you in my life I would have looked for you. I didn’t. I kept my end of the bargain.”

Copyright © Catherine West – Hidden in the Heart – 2012


Have you ever written ‘what you know’? If not, why not?

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  1. Michelle Weidenbenner on February 26, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    Cathy – I love this post!

    In my current wip, Willow’s greatest fear is that her birth mom will do just this–reject her again. Even though this hasn’t happened to me, my adopted daughter wonders about this often–Why didn’t she keep me?” Maybe that’s why I’ve written it into Willow’s story. Unfortunately for my daughter she may never have the chance to find her birth mom because we adopted her from a Russian orphanage.

    You helped me see Willow’s raw emotion. I feel for Claire. Good for you for telling your story. I’m sure HIDDEN IN THE HEART is great because of your emotion. Had you kept a journal during those difficult times? Or are you able to relive it all from memory?

    BTW, I bought YESTERDAY’S TOMORROW and started reading it last night. I’m enjoying it!

    Michelle Weidenbenner

    • Cathy West on February 27, 2012 at 8:21 am

      Hi Michelle!! Thanks, that’s great! Adoption can be very tricky, especially in a case like your daughter’s where she may never get answers. Sometimes we just have to rest in the knowledge that God had a plan for our lives and knew what was best. There are still some unanswered questions for me, but when I start to think about them, I just have to put it back into God’s hands. I know all I need to know and I’m fortunate and very blessed to have things turn out the way they did.

  2. ScottVeritas on February 26, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    I know what you mean. I’m a middle-class white American male. Unless I want everything I write to be like a John Hughes movie, I have to push boundaries.

  3. Keli Gwyn on February 27, 2012 at 9:45 am

    Cathy, I admire you for telling your story in Hidden in Her Heart. I’m sure it must be tough at times as you dredge up old memories, but I hope you also find it cathartic as you pour your emotions into the story and take Claire on the journey to the completion of her character arc.

    I think there’s some of me in every story I write. While I may not have dealt with the situations my characters face, I have often experienced the core emotions they are dealing with. In my recent story, the heroine has to forgive someone close to her and doesn’t know how she can bring herself to do it. I had to do the same at one point in my own life, and I know the experience is possible, realistic, and freeing.

    • Cathy West on February 27, 2012 at 9:53 am

      Keli, I think you said it perfectly. It is those core emotions that we writers draw from – sometimes even subconsciously! It’s not always easy to be honest with our own feelings but I think when we write, we’re able to say things through our characters that we might never have had the chance to in our own lives, which is definitely cathartic.

  4. Lindsay Harrel on February 27, 2012 at 11:00 am

    It sounds like your book will touch a lot of people. I look forward to reading it when it comes out.

    I want to write my story someday. I’m just not sure how or when. But I think God allows trials in our lives to teach us and, if we’re brave enough, to help us reach others with our stories about God’s faithfulness.

    • Cathy West on February 27, 2012 at 5:19 pm

      Lindsay, I hope you get to write your story someday. Sometimes it helps just to get the words out there, even if it’s just for yourself.

  5. Rosslyn Elliott on February 27, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Wow, that is a gripping passage. I’m sure this is going to be just as compelling as Yesterday’s Tomorrow, in its own way!

    • Cathy West on February 27, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      Thanks, Rosslyn! It is a different book and nothing like YT, but I hope my readers will enjoy it just as much. 🙂

  6. Bonnie Way on February 29, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Great topic. I’m actually in a nonfiction class right now, trying very hard to “write what I know” because I am writing my own story, and finding that it’s harder to write that than to write fiction. Because as you say, I have to take it deeper and further than just “what I know,” and really explore what was going on in me at that time as well as around me. Hopefully this “digging” into nonfictional areas will also help me to tackle the same thing in my fiction. I really like your book excerpt, btw. 🙂 Good luck!

  7. Christina B on March 2, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Great insights, Catherine! I always find it interesting how each writer approaches things differently in how they make their characters come alive. I think, in a way, it’s rather like being an actor-because you have to tap into these personal emotions and deliver a “performance” of sorts through the people you create. They have to be realistic and three dimensional, even if you’ve never experienced the things they are supposed to. You must imagine. And if you have been through it, you then need to be willing to “go there” again for a truly honest portrayal. I think so much more goes into the making of a memorable story than just combining words-it’s also deeply felt emotion and vulnerability on the part of the author as well.

    Speaking of that, I recently finished Yesterday’s Tomorrow and found it completely riveting! I posted a review on my blog, if you’d like to read it.
    Thanks so much for all the hard work you put into the story of Luke and Kristen-it really showed! I’m looking forward to your new book, Hidden in the Heart. 🙂

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