Affected (Cheryl Renée Herbsman)

Every relationship I've ever had influences my writing -- in both intentional and unintentional ways. That's just how I am -- affected.

Last week I was called for jury duty. The defendant was charged with drunk driving. Last spring my sister was in a horrible accident on the Golden Gate Bridge in which she was hit by a drunk driver. She could easily have been killed. Of the sixty-some people in the court room last week, I was among the fifteen or so selected for the jury. I told the judge about my sister's accident. I said I didn't think I could be an impartial voice on the jury. He said the law says I have to leave my own feelings and experiences at the door and make an impartial decision. He said there might be evidence brought forth that is inadmissible and that if that were to happen, we should "unring the bell" and forget what we'd just heard. I said I didn't think I could do that. He looked at me as if I were an annoying and unruly child. I was not saying I would consider the defendant guilty based on my sister's accident, but if there was any evidence that he was guilty, I'd want him to have to face justice. I've been made aware of how real the consequences of drunk driving can be. After more questioning by the defense attorney, I was finally let go.

I walked out of there thinking, Is there something wrong with me? Is it normal to be able to completely set aside one's own feelings, impressions, and experiences? Maybe that's normal for some people. It isn't normal for me. I'm affected, influenced by my feelings, my thoughts, my imaginings, my relationships. And, so yes, they would impact my decision-making on a jury and of course, they infiltrate my writing.

The good guys in my fiction are in some part always based on my husband because he's a good guy. The not-so-good guys are in part based on experiences I've had with not-so-good guys. That's not to say that every relationship is a reflection of my own. Some of them come from being a people watcher, from being the kind of person who strives to understand how people interact. And much of the time, I might base the idea of a character on someone, but then the character comes alive and takes on his/her own life and becomes someone very different than whom I'd first imagined. It's a complicated business. Sometimes a character needs to be a kind of person I've had no experience with, and then in fiction or in the real world, I might seek out people like this character in order to understand them better. But always, always I'm influenced by the real relationships in my life.

Here's a little clip of an interview I did about the inspiration for the character of Jackson (Savannah's love interest) in Breathing:

I like for there to be hope in my stories and I feel very lucky that I've experienced the kind of relationship that allows me to feel and share that hopefulness.


  1. I think you were right to own that you wouldn't be able to remain completely impartial. For the judge it's work - they have to desensitize themselves to their cases because they couldn't do their job otherwise - but that desensitization might be what surprised the judge.

    And no, I don't think there's any such thing as objectivity. We can strive for it, sure. But we always bring our life experiences to with us.

  2. No, everyone isn't impartial, and judges and lawyers know that. That's why they specifically ask those questions! The problem is that sometimes people say, "Oh, I can't be impartial" because they're just trying to get out of jury duty. So I think that's why they push people a bit before they excuse them, to make sure they're sincere and not just dodging jury service.

  3. Took guts to stand up and say how you really felt, Cheryl. Kudos...

  4. I'm surprised at the judge's reaction to you. I was called for jury duty this week, also for a case that involved drunk driving, and everyone who had close personal experience with drunk driving, or even had particularly strong opinions against drunk driving, was excused. It's completely normal for this stuff to affect you! -Elizabeth L.

  5. I don't think you're alone at all--I couldn't help but be influenced by what I knew and experienced. Glad your sister is okay.


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