Writing What You Know

16Dec14

Among the many invocations piled upon the aspiring writer, “write what you know” is usually close to the top. Like most of them, this one can be overly interpreted to the absurd (in either direction); but in the main, I think it’s pretty good advice for Big Issues.

I know a lot about the law and courtrooms, politicians, elections and the legislative process. It excites me (I know, that’s sick) to use these as plot devices, because with my knowledge, I can have fun crafting a compelling plotline, without either doing months of research or losing sleep over the fear of a Big Dig-size plot hole.

I suppose I could do the research necessary to write a convincing bio-terrorism thriller, but why would I? I don’t know anything about either biological weapons or international terrorist tactics. And there are apparently hundreds of other authors who do (or think so), so it’s simply not a value proposition for me to go there.

On the other hand, very few of the authors who use international terrorism or intelligence in their plots have any actual experience in that field. They have general experience in the “profession,” perhaps, but I sincerely doubt that Barry Eisler was actually an international assassin.

Another great example is sex. Who doesn’t know about sex? It seems some people get very rich these days writing about all sort of deviant and sordid sex. I take it on faith that most of them are just gifted with wild imaginations. I mean, seriously, edible body paint?Small Fish - ACX

But those are Big Picture things. You can research a lot of technical detail bits with internet research these days. It’s ridiculous how quickly you can learn anything on a browser. Or at least get a reliable answer to a question. Guns, incendiary devices, blood spatter science, even the heritage of Jesus Christ, apparently.

But do you really need to know the actual fact to successfully fake it? Even if the reader expects you to be authoritative on it, your research can carry you. People trust Tom Clancy on military spy stuff, but he was an insurance salesman who couldn’t even get into the service because of nearsightedness.

Of course, there are many instances in which the reader couldn’t care less about technical accuracy. These are just opportunities to let your whimsical self loose.

Here’s an example from a recently published indie novel.

As we near the climax of the story, the hero has been beaten about the face, head and body by thugs. He lies in a hospital room with an IV drip of hydrocodone when his wife rushes to his side. How does a badly beaten man under the influence of hydrocodone behave? What does he see? How does he speak? Does the author need to interview an ER physician before putting finger to key? Of course not. Anyone with a bit of life experience has been zonked on painkillers in a hospital at least once or twice. (Or if he’s over 50, has had a colonoscopy!)

Through a gauzy hydrocodone haze, Paul imagined an angel, disguised as his wife, swiftly descending on him. As the angel got closer, the features of her face clarified, and for a terrifying moment, he saw Shannon as a marionette.

“Your cheek looks like an eggplant,” Shannon the puppet said, gliding to Paul’s side, patting him gently with its tiny hands.

“You look like Pinocchio with tits,” Paul said, totally serious.

The floor nurse poked her head in. “Mrs. Forté, your husband has just had a fresh dose of pain killer, so I would give him a wide berth on whatever he says.”

“What do you mean? He talks to me like that all the time.” She patted Paul’s hand. “Don’t you, sweetie?”

Now the cat’s out of the bag. I’m shilling for PAUL & SHANNON.Full Irish Cover MEDIUM WEB

Susanne and I had a lot of fun with FULL IRISH, and we’re very excited about the plot that’s coming together for the next in the series. A lot of it is what I know, but in the past two days I have spoken with experts in (a) “double indemnity” insurance and (b) mortuary procedure.

So it’s not all about what you know, but what you need to know.

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One Response to “Writing What You Know”

  1. Back in grad school, during a discussion of writing tropes, we got on to the whole “write what you know” thing. The teacher — writer Grace Paley — suggested it would be a pretty dull world if people stuck to that. She said, “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”


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