Mark Terry

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Writing Advice: Write What You--

August 23, 2006
The classic writing advice is: Write what you know.

I've never really thought this was great advice. One reason I think it's iffy advice is sometimes we're not all that interested in what we know; it's so common to us it's boring, even if it's something relatively interesting to other people. The second reason is that sometimes we don't write well about what we know because we know it too well, so we skip things we think everybody knows, but don't.

Better advice is: Write what you're interested in.

This brings some intellectual curiosity and even (hopefully) passion to the enterprise. If you can get excited about it, hopefully the readers can, too. The Internet makes research a breeze, although I encourage anybody writing a novel who has a question about something to make a phone call or pay a visit, because that kind of research is different than what you do via books and the Internet.

There's another bit of writing advice I've been pondering lately: Write what you fear.

Here's my line of thinking. I'm reading "Skinny Dip" by Carl Hiaasen and there's a character dying of cancer in it. My father died of cancer a couple years ago. My mother has Alzheimer's, as does my mother-in-law. As I was walking away from reading a scene about this woman (to let the dog out), I thought in my morbid way: wonder which way I'll go--cancer or Alzheimer's.

I'm currently, as you know, writing a series about a character who is an expert on biological and chemical terrorism. I'm definitely interested in the subject. Derek Stillwater, who is a troubleshooter for Homeland Security, has a PhD and learned much of what he knows on the subject while he was in Army Special Forces. He also spent time working for the UN as a weapons inspector and has been on loan to the CIA off and on. What's a little different about Derek is he really fears biological and chemical weapons agents. He has panic attacks prior to entering a potential scene. He's a bit neurotic about the whole thing, as well as superstitious. In THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK it is mentioned that a psychiatrist had told him, "You've spent your entire career looking through the gates of hell. I'd be surprised if you weren't a bit crazy. Take a vacation, have a Margarita, get laid."

Having been raised by a pair of hypochondriacs, it's probably not a big surprise that I have some morbid fascination with disease. I also worked at a hospital for 18 year, as well as spending some time in infectious disease research. At the recent book event featuring Stephen King, JK Rowling and John Irving, somebody asked Stephen King who he read these days that scared him. He sort of avoided the subject, noting that as you age what scares you changes. Absolutely right, Stephen, and he ought to know. The older we get the more boring our fears, probably. No ghosts and goblins and monsters under my bed. Instead I fear cancer and disease and losing my mind and depression and disability and dying alone and not being able to make my bills and my marriage dissolving and what might happen to my kids and...

I've started working on a possible proposal for a medical thriller. I'm still finishing up the third Derek Stillwater novel, ANGELS FALLING (almost done!) and I've been thinking about the fourth, which is due in about 15 months, but the pressure to play with this one idea... and as I've started it I've realized just how personal it is, how it involves Alzheimer's patients...

Well, Doctor, should I take the chair or the couch?

Of course, what you fear may not be all that obvious to you. It may, in fact, appear in your books whether you want them to or not. JK Rowling created the characters of the Dementors, dark-robed creatures that feed on your feelings, leaving you with your worst emotions and thoughts of the most horrible thing that happened in your life, able to give you a "Dementor's kiss," which will literally suck out your soul. I don't know if Jo Rowling consciously was describing a physical manifestation of clinical depression, but she nailed it. Writing novels can, for better or worse, be akin to visiting a shrink.

Last writing advice: Take a vacation, have a Margarita, get laid.

You may not get published, but at least you'll be relaxed and with a smile on your face.

Mark Terry


Anonymous ADTS Writes said...

Great advice all around.

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

If I wrote what I knew I wouldn't have much to write about. I'd be writing the sort of literary novel someone once described as "nothing much happens to characters you don't care about." Obviously, in writing mysteries set in the sixth century Roman Empire I'm writing about something that interests me.

Of course I "know" ancient Constantinople as well (although not to the same extent) as anybody can. No one can visit the past. No one can "know" what it was like first hand. And I like that. I would feel uncomfortable describing places I had never actually seen but readers might well have visited (or lived in).

I'm not sure the sorts of things I do know lend themselves to mysteries/thrillers. I am utterly ignorant, for example, about guns and cars. Nor do my interests lead me that way since police procedure doesn't really fascinate me.

As for fears...yes, what we fear does change. Why do we ever fear ghosts? Isn't the oblivion we face if there are no ghosts more fearful?

I was wondering if I write about my fears and I think I do. I fear injustice. And in our books, justice is elusive and usually needs to be arranged for unofficially, shall we say.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

Yeah, the whole "tension" thing pretty much requires us to give our characters some sort of phobia. I think that's why I get so uptight reading Jodi Picoult. She loves writing about kids in the worst sort of trouble. That's probably my biggest fear as a parent. Especially her latest (Tenth Circle) in which her character was a very sexually active 14 year-old girl. That brought about nightmares.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Mmmm, Ron. From time to time I come across a novel featuring abuse to kids and typically I can't read it. The exception for me has been "Angel Falls" by Michael Connelly, which to me is an absolutely amazing novel, but it's possible I like it because it comes at the child abuse issue from an angle, where Connelly's "The Poet" I can't stand because it's right out there. It's also why I've been rather hesitant to read anything by Andrew Vacchs.

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Dory said...


I thihk both are correct.

Writing what one's interested in may well require some RESEARCH.

So, in fact it may evolve into "Writing About What You Know"

;) I've decided to be a smart ass on Thursdays.


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