Mark Terry

Sunday, February 25, 2007

What To Write About

February 25, 2007
I have no answers here, just some observations.

I had lunch with my friend Ron Estrada on Friday. Ron's written a mystery novel--a good one, so hopefully it'll get published--that involves a Detroit cop retiring to northern Michigan and opening a diner on a river near a tourist town.

During the course of lunch Ron mentioned that not only was he a military brat who grew up all over the place, but he'd served in the Navy as an electronic weapons specialist. I said, "How come you've never written about that?" He just shrugged.

I mentioned I was messing around with an espionage novel (and seemingly getting nowhere) that takes place primarily in China. Ron commented drily, "I got drunk in Hong Kong once."

I thought kind of ironically that I could take that single sentence: "I got drunk in Hong Kong once," and turn it into twenty stories, ranging from short stories, travel articles, novels to screenplays. In fact, I'm going to challenge Ron right now: write a short story or a novel with the first line: I got drunk in Hong Kong. Come on, Ron. I dare you. What happens next? Witness a murder? Get involved in the tongs or the Triads? Human smuggling? Espionage? Murder? What, what, what?

I'm fascinated by what people decide to write about. And probably even more fascinated by what they DON'T write about.

My writer friend Dennis Collins has written a book or two about a retired cop in Michigan. A couple years ago he and I and Mike Ball were hanging out at Magna cum Murder and Dennis was telling us about a time when he lived in Mexico and about this gambling area (I don't remember if it was cock fights or dog fights or whatever) and the bookies had seats in the balconies and the people on the floor would write their bets on sipls of paper and put them in these hollowed out balls, then throw them up to the bookies. I said, "How come you've never written about that?" Dennis just shrugged.

It's not that what they've chosen to write about isn't or can't be interesting. For years I avoided writing about the sciences. I was, after all, trying to escape that life and career. I, too, wrote about a P.I. living "up north" (a disabled cop turned PI, living on Grand Traverse Bay), because I was living out a fantasy on the page. Yet sometimes readers are fascinated by what you think is boring--like your own life.

Here are a couple incidents from my life that I've never written about:

1. I had a job in college as a lab assistant for a researcher working on diabetes research. He eventually hired a full-time technologist and I had to train her how to handle the lab rats. I wore a thick, suede leather glove and picked up the rat and said, "You can handle them with your bare hands. They will bite, but--" And the rat squirmed around and bit me right through the leather glove, drawing blood. (I was also bitten by a lab mouse, which is worse, because rats bite and let go, but lab mice bite and hang on; you usually freak out like I did and flap your hand and the mouse eventually lets go and goes flying across the lab--goodbye experiment)

2. My first job out of college was in infectious disease research. (It only lasted about 6 months). We were studying spinal meningitis. My job was to inject bacteria into the spinal cords of rabbits so that by a specific time on Thursday nights (this timing was impossible), the rabbits would be severely ill, and we would take them into the basement of Henry Ford Hospital and subject the rabbits to MRI (magnetic resonance imaging, although at the very beginning it was called NMR, for nuclear magnetic resonance imaging). We had to schedule this at night. HFH is a huge complex in Detroit with multiple buildings connected by tunnels and walkways. Late at night these buildings are practically empty and I'm wandering all over them with nearly dead rabbits on carts. It was eerie. The lights are dim, your footsteps echo up and down the hallways...

There are plenty of others. But I've never really written about any of them, although I think I was getting closer with THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK.

I'm not sure there's any answer here. Stephen King has often responded when people ask him why he writes horror, "What makes you think I have a choice?"

Yet I'm often surprised, given how interesting some people's lives have seemed to have been, that they then choose to write about things other than those interesting lives. I suspect we're all just too close to our own lives.

And it's not like you can't take something positively mundane and make it into great fiction. Harlan Coben has made millions writing about everyday suburban family people getting caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

I'm not sure why we're drawn to the things we actually write about. But, like I said, I'm always fascinated when I run into a writer who's done something in their life that I find fascinating and exotic, but who then chooses to write about something else.

Mark Terry


Blogger Ron Estrada said...

I think probably we never believe our lives are as interesting to others as they are to us. While I probably couldn't make an entire novel out of getting drunk in Hong Kong (or Subic Bay, Singapore, Perth, Japan, Spain...), I could certainly drop these tidbits into a story to give them a taste of reality and character. Okay, I'll take you up on your challenge. Let's see, what would Jack Ryan do?

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

One fellow I knew who fancied himself a "literary" writer figured you should only write about all the misery in your own life. Why are you making up silly stories, he would say in effect when you could write about your divorce? I guess I prefer to produce writing that takes readers (and me) away from our problems for awhile

2:37 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

LOLOL ... that's actually a great loaded first sentence! :-)

I live a very mundane life, too. I was so lucky with my little publishers. I've written fantasy, spec fiction, historical, paranormal, chick lit, thriller (not impressive, though, but it was my second novella ever), and mainstream. All with erotic scenes, of course. It's been/is a perfect training ground for me.

I'm trying my hand at espionage, now. (Surprise, surprise.) I can't wait! The research is particularly difficult. Any good resources to share, by any chance?

3:37 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I got drunk in Hong Kong once and woke up in a pool of blood. My only saving grace was that it was not my own....

Compared to that guy I've had a pretty boring life so I have to agree with ron on this one.
I agree with eric too, I'd rather forget my own misery then share it.
I prefer to watch the people in line at the grocery store and wonder if they have a body in their trunk.

5:19 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I wonder just how often we write things as an escape from our own lives.

I find espionage novels to be research heavy, too. The Internet is probably the best resource. The CIA websites don't seem all that helpful, but there are some good blogs with interesting perspectives, like:

"The Spy Who Billed Me" blog and "The Peacock's Tail," both of which have links to interesting sources and similar blogs.

4:44 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Oh, and Aimless. I'd read that book. Great beginning.

4:44 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Thanks, Mark! I've been reading and clicking at The Spy Who Billed Me, but I missed The Peacock's Tail.

Thank you!

9:16 AM  
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