Brown River Queen cover art

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Write What You Know, No!

People are quick to offer writing advice.

Some of the advice is good. Write every day, for instance. I try to follow that rule.

Some of the advice, though, is pure poison. Take the time-honored adage 'write what you know.'

If I, as a writer, wrote only what I knew, I'd be churning out books with titles such as I Was a Teenage Pastry Chef and Adventures in Middle Management. They'd be filled with paragraphs like the one below:

        Woke up at five-thirty. Hit snooze once before stumbling out of bed, tripping over dog, and shuffling for the shower.  Rain fell with a distant, nearly inaudible pat-pat-pat on the porch. A loud car thundered past, a snatch of discordant music in its wake, and I pondered the first pressing question of the day.
         Cereal, or oatmeal?

Because that's what I know, in a nutshell. Work. Grocery stores. Finding a decent song on the car radio.  Getting a haircut, or waiting a few days. Where epic high adventure is concerned, I mainly differ from mollusks in that I lack a protective shell and have a valid iTunes account.

I've never been a suave, deadly secret agent embroiled in jet-setting international intrigue (except that one time in junior college). I've never been locked in hand-to-hand combat with some slavering supernatural beast bent on devouring my soul via my tasty, tasty viscera. I very seldom match wits with anything that can even remotely be described as eldritch, fell, ancient, diabolical, or even more than mildly disgruntled.

So, if I actually limited my writing to that which I know, I'd be a very poor writer indeed (I hear you, in the back, snickering and saying "Yeah, and that's different how?").

Take Markhat, for instance.  He's my fantasy detective character, and he's a blast to write. He's a blast to write because, and this is important, Markhat is so unlike me I'm surprised I can write him at all. Markhat is always ready with a snappy comeback and a clever plan.  He thinks on his feet, he punches with his manly fists, he takes on blood-crazed halfdead and deranged sorcerers and vengeful ghosts and at the end he emerges victorious.

We don't always emerge victorious, on this side of the book. In poor sad reality, as often as not, the bad guys not only win the day but get the girl and drive off in the shiny new Mercedes while the good guy is left to stare at the want ads and hope that nagging small pain in his chest isn't anything serious.

That's the kind of scenario most of us know.

But it's the last thing I want to read about.  Now, I'm not saying you should ignore loss and losing and pain and regret -- quite the contrary.  Without them, you wind up with breathless potboilers lacking any kind of heart.

But please, please don't take me into your character's head if all he or she can do is whine about the injustice of it all.  I can get all of that I want right here, right now.

Show me a hero. Even a reluctant, flawed hero. Especially a reluctant, flawed hero. Show me a Frodo Baggins, or a Harold Shea, or a Merlin of Amber.

Show me someone and something I don't know.

I don't know any actual Hobbits, or any misplaced magicians, or any reality-crossing sorcerers. I do know people who are brave, or kind, or determined, so I take out those bits of them and stick them in a pot and boil until the noddles are soft, and out comes Markhat.

Same goes for villains. I've not met many actual bloodthirsty murderers, but I have known people who were heartless or sadistic or just plain mean. I'm sometimes tempted to look up a couple of particularly vile specimens and email them a thank-you for being such an excellent example of cruel, amoral villainy. I don't, though, because you never know when you'll need to visit that bank again.

So I guess I do write what I know, to a very small extent. My point is this -- don't let your lack of experience as a cat burglar or an international jewel thief stop you from writing about one. Do your research. think things through. Season your character with tidbits of what you do know.

And then lie your little fingers off, and hope to be paid for the excellence of your lies.

Isn't this a grand way to not quite make a living?


  1. But strangely, your sense of humor mirrors Markhat's almost magically. :>)

    I try not to write about breaking and entering too often. I don't want a lot of nosy questions.

    1. Well, to be honest, I think Markhat writes all my jokes...

  2. I loved the FB hook and the blog. "Throw it all in a pot and boil . . ." Perfect! Now, about those Bigfoot pics . . .

  3. Oops. Nessie ate the Bigfoot pics! And I had them sold, too!