Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Caridad Ferrer, author of "Adiós to My Old Life"

"Write what you know."

How many times as writers have we been told just that? I think it might even be in the initiation packet along with instructions on the secret handshake. But there's no denying that it's a technique that works. Especially for a first book. It gives you a level of comfort that allows you as the writer, the freedom to allow your story to come to life. So for my debut novel for MTV Books, I did just that -- wrote what I knew.

See, I've been a musician since the age of five. I'd been begging for a piano and lessons since at least age three and finally, my parents caved. The tradeoff, though, was that at holiday parties, I was also expected to make command performances wearing that season's ruffles and patent leather Mary-Janes as my feet dangled from the bench, barely touching the pedals. Rather than traumatize me, however, it sparked a desire to perform and a lifelong love affair -- some would say obsession -- with music. Singing, musical theatre, band, even majoring in music in college. I play music in the car, sing along with the music playing over the speakers in the grocery store -- I even write with music playing in the background, creating scene-evoking soundtracks for my stories.

But music's not the only thing that serves as a huge influence in my writing. Another aspect of writing what I know comes from my cultural background. As a first generation Cuban-American raised in Miami, I've got cultural background in spades. When people ask me if I jumped on the Latina bandwagon because it's "hot" in publishing, I just look at them with a quizzical sort of expression. It's not "hot." It's simply what and who I am. And trust me, when you come from a large and extensive Cuban family, you've got material for days, so why wouldn't I take advantage of that, right?

However, when I was first approached about attempting a Young Adult novel, I found myself stumped. I'd never written in the Young Adult genre -- I'd never even considered writing within the YA genre. I mean, I wasn't Young Adult when I was a young adult, if you get what I'm saying. How on earth was I going to write something that was fresh and fun and relatable? And this is where "write what you know" came into play and ultimately proved to be my saving grace. I recalled what I was doing when I was seventeen and guess what? At seventeen, I was a musician. So I decided to write about a seventeen year-old, Cuban-American musician who lives in Miami. She's not a complete avatar for me, mind you. For one thing, she's a guitarist -- an instrument I've never played; for another, she has a typically overprotective Cuban father. Mine definitely did not fall within those parameters. I also gave her the one thing I really lacked at that age: An unshakable faith and confidence in her musical ability.

To make it timely and relatable, I set it within the context of a reality show. To bring it within the realm of my own experience, I made the show a sort of Latin-American version of American Idol. Not that I have a clue what it would be like to be on American Idol; I simply tried to envision what a music show might be like if it were set in Miami and run by a bunch of Latinos. In other words, I sort of envisioned a typical family holiday party and went from there. So with that kind of comfort zone as a basis, I was able to really let myself go and concentrate on the characters and the stories they wanted to tell.

By all accounts, it would seem as if I've succeeded in writing what I know. One of the most constant compliments I've received on Adios to My Old Life is that I've really accomplished my objective of giving the readers a glimpse into a world they might not otherwise be familiar with. What's incredibly fun -- and gratifying -- is that the worlds glimpsed aren't the same for every reader. Sometimes, that world is music, sometimes, it's the Cuban culture.

All because I wrote what I knew.

Please visit Caridad Ferrer's website to read more about Adios to My Old Life.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Backstory.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.