Blueprint to automate your author marketing - click here:Get the Webinar
Free Webinar "Automate your Author Marketing"


Write What You Know – How to Create Compelling Stories from Real Life

How One Police Officer Used his Experience to Turn Reality into Fiction


How do You “Write What you Know”?

A lot of writing pros will tell you to “write what you know”. But, obviously, that’s not particularly useful.

Taken literally, entire genres like Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and speculative fiction go out the window. So, of course, that advice needs to be adapted somewhat to your personal situation.

The advice “write what you know”, to me, means “write something that rings true for you”. In other words, use your experiences and personality to create something authentic, that’s a reflection of who you are and the ideas you want to express.

This is going to be different for everybody.

So, today, I want to elaborate and share an example from real life. Gavin Reese (not his real name) is an Arizona cop, who has built a career helping to solve crimes and bring those responsible to justice.

All this makes for great reading. Or, at least, it should.

But, as Gavin will tell you, there’s more to creating an authentic story than just regurgitating facts. And there’s a whole swathe of personal, ethical, and political considerations to bear in mind too.




Glory, Shame, and Attempted Anonymity:

How My Web of Lies and Deceit Facilitate my Brutal Honesty

by Gavin Reese

A bit of my background to put all this in perspective.

I’m a cop. Real badge, real gun, well, guns, and actual experience hunting, chasing, and intimidating those who victimize others. Almost a decade ago, I returned to writing as self-therapy and put a novel together. Actually, a work of forest-clearing proportions that took five years of varying dedication to produce. 700-some pages, 183k+ words.

I couldn’t understand why traditional publishers had no interest in it. Did they miss the part about how it was based on my personal reality? How it dripped with authenticity and numerous, complex, and simultaneous subplots that are the modern reality of organized crime investigations? The story was so rich with detail that readers had only heard rumor the main antagonist for the first 200 pages!

I followed the sage advice of an editor and friend, Vivian Caethe, and spent a year cleaving it in twain and turning each half into a stand-alone novel. Along the way, I attracted attention from Cyanide Publishing and now partner with them as an independent author.

The first book, “Enemies Domestic,” took almost exactly seven years from first word to publication on 3 Jul 17. Since then, I’ve dropped the follow-on novel, “Enemies Foreign,” and two novellas, “Room Number Three” and “The Debt Collectors.” In the last seven months, my publications have added just south of 500k words to the available noise on Amazon. I hope to add at least another half-million this year, but primarily in 40-60k-word novellas.



So, my honesty problems with the books. That’s why you’re here.

I write crime fiction. Half thriller, half modern hard-boiled detective story, half exposé. I try to present the world as I see it, from my own biased and emotionally-invested perspective. I try to be honest with the public, with my readers.

Trouble is, if I’m gonna tell it like it is, I have to tell it like it was. The gory assaults I’ll never un-see, the bloody and desperate crime scenes, the writhing murder victim fighting to avert the imminent and inevitable. All the unforgivable things suspects do to their victims. The horrendous confessions that, I’m told, used to bring out the rubber hose.



These days, they just motivate the defense attorney to force-feed their client whatever shitty plea deal the prosecutor offers. Not much incentive to roll the dice with a jury knowing they’ll first hear the criminal client discuss how much he relished…never mind, you don’t wanna know. And that’s part of my point.

My books and blogs are all based on my professional training and personal experience as a cop, which continues to take up at least 40 of my writing hours each and every week.

Still trying to convince the CPA that the cop job’s been a long-term research project for my still-underwater writing business.

Can’t understand why he refuses to retroactively re-file all those tax returns. Sorry, I talk in tangents. The primary benefit of writing from my own memories and experiences is that it’s cheap, fast, and easy. Just like the suspect I have cornered and sweating in the box, it’s easier for me to tell you the truth than to make up a load of recycled bovine feed and hope my audience buys it. It also feels better, telling the truth.

Easier to remember, easier to re-tell, easier to corroborate. Problem is, for Me-The-Author, the truth is a fickle and vindictive mistress.

She’s at once the angel on my right shoulder and the devil on my left, and she threatens everyone involved.

I lose what little mirage of anonymity my pen name offers, the victims and their families get their darkest hours paraded before the public, and the convicts get to bask in the glory of their achievements. Not a single benefit I can find in that scenario.



Turning Facts into Fiction

So, while I wish I could simply regurgitate the facts, events, and places as I knew them, I can’t allow myself to be that lazy. Even if my novels take off like wildfire through the tall, dry late-summer grass, even if Netflix calls to put my Alex Landon series up against Harry Bosch (I laugh, too, no offense taken), it’d all be tainted and undermined if I contributed further abuse to the victims I’ve worked so hard to help.

That brings me to my deception, and there’s lots of it. Here’s the Cliff Notes to the onion of my lies, at least the layers I’m willing to talk about.

First thing, I read up on Joseph Wambaugh. Not just his books, but his life as a cop and writer. I reached out to him with my plan to become a working-cop-author, and he’s kind enough to have offered some advice and a dialogue. He’s still one of the tallest yardsticks in crime fiction, and his books, TV shows, and movies ruined his cop career.

Turns out the cop bosses who work in the department’s Ivory Tower don’t like a real cop using their real name and their real police department as a backdrop to discuss real cop behavior.

They apparently don’t think it’s good for public relations to admit that cops are people, after all, with a lot of the same shortcomings and failings as the population at-large. I wanted the freedom to share the good, the bad, and the ugly of my career with my readers, and I didn’t wanna feel forced out of the profession like Sergeant Wambaugh did. I needed a pen name.

Gavin Reese. Nice to meet you.



Second, I decided to create a fake town.

If future species study us through our crime novels, they’ll justifiably arrive at the supposition that acronyms ended our civilization; they must be the most dangerous places as almost all detective stories and crime fiction take place there. NY, LA, SF, NO. That’s not the experience of the majority of cops or the reading public.

By the way, would you believe the average American police department has 12 cops? That’s it. 12. No homicide detectives, no crime scene techs. Just cops, a supervisor, and a chief. And, you can rest assured, some vicious small-town politics. That means most crime fighters, just like crime readers, haven’t actually been on Wilshire Boulevard, so I chose to not write another series about it.



The bulk of my fiction is based on my experience working as a cop in Arizona, so that’s much more authentic to me. I didn’t want to write about Phoenix PD, though, too similar to LAPD in size and culture. It’s already been done. Didn’t want to pick a suburb, either, and worry about giving blame or credit to a specific agency and their people.

I needed a fake town outside of the real cities where the reader and I get introduced to this place together.

As an 80s kid, I wanted to use Hill Valley, but that seemed risky and brought uninvited lawyers to the party. Welcome to Dry Creek, Arizona. I placed it on the far west side of Phoenix metro surrounded by real-life drug trafficking corridors and cartel influence.

Town’s gotta have tax payers and DCPD needs personnel. I needed realistic characters, but I didn’t want to cast any of them as an image or portrayal of any individual I’ve met along the way. I had to intentionally construct the residents of Dry Creek so that each is an amalgamation of real-life characters.

Even the main protagonist, Alex Landon. He and I have some similar background, but he’s not me. I’m in pieces of about a dozen characters, little snippets of my personality spectrum mixed with varying components of others to try to make them diverse, genuine, and three-dimensional. Some, like Alex, are better than me, some are worse.

I’ve met very few suspects who are entirely bad, most are the product of their environment and their decisions, the personification of the options available to them over time.



Just the same, I’ve yet to meet the cop who’s also a true and pure saint.

We do good work, we mostly do good things, but we have a lot in common with the criminals we hunt. I can’t take a pure, lilly-white personality into the gutters and sewers of human existence and ever think that experience’ll bleach out of ‘em. I have to possess the same capacity and comfort with violence and swift, immediate consequence if my partners and I are going home tonight. The difference between us and them is control and justification.

I won’t ever murder anyone, even if they have it coming, but I’ll certainly end your bloodline if you push me to it.

I needed the cops in and around Dry Creek to uphold that realistic tasking and perspective, and I wanted readers to understand why criminals are who they are. There are always reasons, even if they’re shitty ones.

Fake town in a real setting, pieces of criminals and cops rearranged to create new characters. Crime time. This has been the most complex part of my entire fictional operation, and this is still new enough that I haven’t yet hashed out a consistent and thorough process. The first book started out with a simple theme of righteous retaliation, but the final product had almost nothing to do with my original intent.



Each subsequent book has been slightly more efficient, more consistent. The current, general formula looks something like this: (Real Crime) + (real-life cop experiences) – (suspect and victim identity) + (new circumstances and legal considerations) / (compressed timeframe) x (different outcome for all involved). As an example, “Room Number Three” is a shuffled deck of crimes, cases, and my experiences.

The suspect behaviors are taken from at least four different cases I and my partners have worked, but the legal backdrop of the fictionalized crimes is different from each of those real-life cases that contributed to the story. The victims are different, the suspect is mostly different, but also similar in some minor behavioral traits.



The outcome is almost entirely fiction.

I won’t spoil it, but for both of you who’ve already read RN3, I’ve been part of the “reveal” conversation between Detectives Wall and Melner, but not for the same reasons. I might’ve, though, shared Landon’s last line with a suspect. Maybe. Maybe not. I can’t recall, Senator.

On the topic of crime, I’ve recently made some changes with my last release and the next few upcoming novellas. I felt a need to specifically give back to the basis of my stories, the victims of real crime whose lives are shattered or forever altered by their experiences. I empathize with them, and I understand what it means to have your yesterdays taint and sully your tomorrows.

Part of all my sales proceeds benefits law enforcement and veteran charities, but a portion of all sales of “The Debt Collectors” goes to two organizations that combat drug trafficking and violent criminals in Arizona.

The next book, which touches on domestic minor sex trafficking, will help support efforts to rescue, recover, and rehab victims of sex trafficking and prostitution. Their atrocities deserve to be told, and they deserve the best second chance we can give them.



My last Biggest Problem is giving away police and investigators’ tactics and legal considerations. After 9/11, Tom Clancy had the displeasure of an interview with the CIA about the similarity those attacks bore to one of his fictional works.

I strive to allow readers to experience as much of my actions, emotions, and reality as I can without teaching you how to manipulate circumstances and justifications to evade detection and apprehension.

The way my fictional patrol cops, detectives, and SWAT operators move and communicate should feel very real, but, actually, are not how we’d necessarily address real life problems. Sorry. I’m not giving John Q. Public a How-To Guide for Police Tactics, even though there’s sprinkles of real life in everything I write.



What About Results?

Good question, and a complicated one. Not sure yet. To date, my Amazon reviews have consistently commented that readers get a sense that I am writing from real-life or personal experiences. For what it’s worth, the four- and five-stars outnumber all the others. So far. I have cut back on the raw language that has become my norm, just based on reader feedback.

I’m content with the growth of my fanbase and response to my books, but I’m too project-oriented to think much about the books post-publication.

There’s another story to write, more crime to fictionalize and bring forth for therapy and criticism.

I’ve tried to keep this project a relative secret, but it turns out a few of my blue family can’t keep their doughnut-holes shut. Institutionally, we’re great at keeping the public’s secrets, but we’re the gossipiest bunch of school girls ever recorded in human history. It’s only a matter of time until all the effort I put into the pen name and fictionized crime are threatened by a jealous, vindictive, or careless coworker.



So, I think a better measure of my fictionalization success is the current lack of correlation between my fiction and my cases. A couple of the crimes and scenes I’ve written about will ring true to the cops who were there with me, shoulder-to-shoulder, but, they’re also gonna be familiar to almost every other cop who’s worked anywhere in central Arizona for the last two or three decades.

Every unique, memorable crime is a 93% DNA match to at least a dozen others. They’re close enough cousins they can’t legally marry in any US state, territory, or the District of Columbia.



Actually, though, I’d prefer to measure the success of my fictional efforts in simpler terms.

I self-medicate with these books. Not the reading, but the writing. Getting the caustic realities I’ve known as a cop out onto paper is therapy; it lets just enough pressure off my collection of boxed-up miseries to keep me upright, vertical, and just.

I genuinely hope the public buys and enjoys them. I want them to arrive at a more intimate understanding of what we endure to keep the watch, but, at the end of the day, these are for me and those like me.

They’re my textual graffiti on the Internet’s concrete underpass, and I’ll keep writing regardless of the Amazon stars, Goodreads ratings, or irrational reviews.

I’ve used lies like tainted currency to buy the freedom to be brutally honest, and I hope the reading public will forgive my necessary deceptions. I’d prefer that you enjoy my work and buy ten copies of everything I ever type, but I’m doing it for me and the victims. I have to protect us without letting the wolves we’ve met enjoy the notoriety of seeing their sins in publication. Our stories’ve cost us innumerable treasure and happiness, and we deserve the most righteous and accurate retelling possible.

My lies are necessary to facilitate that, and I’m honestly grateful for their company.


Gavin Reese answers his call to service by working as a professional cop. He spends most weekends and holidays in a patrol car, and is honored to protect and serve the public. His ongoing training and experience in Patrol, Narcotics, Undercover Operations, Counter-Terrorism, Sex and Human Trafficking, S.W.A.T., and Dark Web Investigations provide an ever-growing queue of ideas and stories for his fact-based fiction. Gavin’s rare free time is devoted to family, travel, martial arts, SCUBA diving, mountaineering, and pursuing the perfect ice cream.


If you enjoyed reading about Gavin’s journey, pick up a copy of his first book, Room #3, and see how he puts it all into practice. It’s available on Kindle for a ridiculously low price of $0.99. Pick up a copy here.

A portion of all Gavin’s sales is donated to charities that serve law enforcement professionals and veterans, their families and heirs, and honour the memory of Fallen Heroes.

And now we want to hear from you: How do you use your real-life experiences to create stories? Are there any difficult aspects of your stories you try to hide from the public? Let us know in the comments.


By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. Click "more info" to find out more. More info.

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website (eg, by scrolling down the page or navigating to a different page) without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this. You can change your cookie settings in your browser at any time to restrict our use of cookies. Full information can be found on our privacy policy here: