Back in the days when I dreamed of writing a novel, but had not yet written one, I often wondered about book research. They always say “write what you know” but in fact that can make for some dull and solipsistic writing. I think what they mean is, “write about stuff you understand, but, assuming you have not lived every experience possible to every being, everywhere, for all time, do some research to round out your story lines and characters.” Doesn’t make such a neat maxim though, does it?

In my novel, one of the characters spends some formative time in prison. In my initial ‘final’ version, there was very little description of his time there and this was something that my first reviewers noticed and criticized. So, when I started my first round of major revisions I realized I needed to add some “prison color” as it were. If I were going to go with the “write what you know” approach, I would have had to commit a crime heinous enough to land me in prison and then waited until I had been there enough to “know” prison before I would be able to write about it. While this might have lent a certain frisson of authenticity to my book I didn’t really want to derail my life to that extent, so I settled for the next best thing – research.

I quickly discovered that the internet in general doesn’t yield up much useful information about the prison experience. There are a lot of message boards, but (sadly) they are trafficked mostly by people asking questions about how to deal with loved ones who are in prison; less by people who are actually in prison and providing descriptive information. I guess when you’re in prison or on your way there, posting on the internet about your experience is not a priority.

So, I went looking for published material and this was when I discovered Jonathan Richards’ Federal Prison- A Comprehensive Survival Guide. It was written by a young man who went to prison for tax fraud and discovered, as he was preparing for his stay, that he couldn’t find any information about what to expect. He saw the need for a preparatory guide for people like him.

Because I ordered this book, I had the singular experience of receiving this warm message, “we hope this guide will be valuable to you as you prepare for your stay in federal prison.”

The guide was in fact fascinating and it saved me the inconvenience of acquiring a felony record. And now that I have read and absorbed it, I do feel more qualified to write about my character’s experience as a prisoner.

Remember when I posted about trying to fix my book based on friends’ suggestions? And how it didn’t really work out as I had hoped because instead of responding what they said about how the book hit them emotionally I tried to follow their instructions about how to fix it?

One of the big mistakes I made was that in trying to make my character’s time in prison more believable, I made the first 70 or pages of the Fall 2010 version of the manuscript read a bit like a reworking of Federal Prison- A Comprehensive Survival Guide. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I thought I needed to include EVERY detail in order to make it believable.

So, in my revisions, I will use what I learned from the Mr. Richards’ guide, but will integrate my understanding into scenes that are germane to my plot, rather than subjecting my readers to a microscopic level of detail about the prison system.

Next up: what those agents said.


Posted by lesherjennifer


  1. I’ve thought about writing a Michener’s guide to jails, based on my experience in county jails (as a public defender, not an inmate!). My clients all have their favorites.
    If your character is in a local jail as opposed to a federal prison, I’d be happy to be a resource for you. There is a world of difference between the two places.
    I’m really enjoying reading about your writing (readin’ yer writin’, as they say in my parts).



    1. Thanks Joy! I have been enjoying the writing of the blog.



  2. Jennifer,
    I am so relieved that you chose the literary path over the felony path. Good Job!
    See…I do read your blog every week.



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