Mark Terry

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Why Write What You Write

April 2, 2008
There was a post recently on the Midwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America listserv by someone who wants to write a mystery in Ohio, but has never been there, and was asking if there was anyone he could talk to. I contacted him and told him I had a number of relatives and friends in Ohio and could hook him up, if he was interested. He contacted me this morning to thank me and to tell me about his story idea and why he was thinking of setting it in Ohio, instead of Minnesota where he lives, or, for that matter, any where else on the planet.

My gut feeling was his story could take place anyplace there was football (American football) and Ohio would be no better than Minnesota. I more or less told him that, but I also told him that if he felt compelled to write about Ohio, then maybe he should. And at the very least, to try and enjoy the process and not get to thinking too much about the selling/marketing/publishing end of things.

Stephen King, somewhat famously, when asked why he writes horror, has said, "What makes you think I have a choice?"

The classic wannabe writer advice is: Write what you know.

I've tended to question that, suggesting that writing about what you're interested in or passionate about is what you should write about, because, after all, you can always go research what you don't know. Also, writing a novel is a long, grueling process with precious little guarantee you'll get anything except the process out of it, so you might as well enjoy the journey. Also, some writers don't want to write about what they know because they're trying to escape from what they know.

That said, the books that I've written that have received the most interest from readers and publishers have seriously touched on things I know quite well; not terrorism, but biology and microbiology and genetics and chemistry. That said, I'm not a computer geek, but DIRTY DEEDS is all about a computer geek and that character, Meg Malloy, has been better received than any of my other published characters. Go figure. I'm not a woman, either, nor have I made $10 million in the tech industry so I can go do what I want to do with my life. (Bummer).

And I'm thinking of the novel I'm reading right now, "Compulsion" by Jonathan Kellerman, whose main character is a child psychologist, and Kellerman is/was a child psychologist. Dick Francis was a jockey and all of his books revolved around horse racing in some fashion.

So clearly there are some people that utilize their expertise to write about what they know. Christopher Reich is another one.

What do I make of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, who write a series about John the Eunuch, Grand Chancellor to Emperor Justinian in 5th or 6th Century Byzantium? Neither of them, as far as I know, are historians. But obviously there's something about that era that attracts them and interests them.

Although Randy Wayne White's character Doc Ford is an ex-assassin (sort of), he's also a marine biologist. Randy's not a marine biologist, but he was a fishing guide for years and he lives on the ocean next to a bunch of marine biologists and clearly it's a subject he's interested in.

I sometimes wonder if I should move away from cops and spies and focus on forensic experts or scientists. After 18 years working in a genetics lab and hanging out with med techs and geneticists and research scientists, this is a group of people I understand very well. My more successful books feature Derek Stillwater, who is both spy of sorts and a scientist. Maybe it's time to focus on a biologist or geneticist that gets in trouble. Or a freelance writer that gets in trouble. Should I write what I know? 

I can't tell. What do you guys think? Should you write what you know?

Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I think if you don't write what you know, you should write what resonates with you. THE ROOFER was all about the Westies and Hell's Kitchen and I "borrowed" a lot from my father's life--knowing it vicariously, so to speak. But I realized, as I was setting out to write it, originally, from the perspective of the MEN, that I couldn't write it from that POV. I don't know what it is like to kill someone, and I don't know what's it's like, more importantly, to kill someone and feel absolutely no moral qualms about it whatsoever. It was too foreign to me. So I set out to write the story of the DAUGHTER of someone like that. I "knew" that person, in some fashion. No, it's no autobiography, but I could resonate with the idea that you worry for the souls of the people in your life, and if their souls are dark, dark, dark . . . then that must color your whole worldview.

So that's my take . . . you don't have to write what you know, but if it's to be authentic, somehow you must find what you can really write with truth.


7:12 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I hope I don't have to write what I know, because I don't know much. :-) I write about people that fascinate me, that I just can't get enough of.

Music? I don't think I can write about music. Maybe after a break. I need a sabbatical before I can tackle that with enthusiasm. Although, I've pointedly not read the Gayle Lynds' spy book about a pianist, so I wouldn't be influenced when and/or/if I write a spy book about the same thing.

I always thought an ethnomusicoligist turned spy would be really cool. But I don't know that much about ethnomusicology, LOL.

Speaking of which, when is the next Stillwater book coming out?

8:13 AM  
Blogger Melanie Avila said...

First I wrote my memoir and now I'm writing a novel very loosely on my husband. I suppose you could say these are things I know. What's nice about the novel is I've been able to work in things I've learned about Mexico that didn't have a place in my memoir.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Eric Mayer said...

If I wrote what I know, defining "what I know" as what I have actually experienced I'm afraid it would make for a really boring story. In fact, a lot of beginning writers make a grave error by assuming that because their lives are interesting to them they are interesting to everyone else too. That's where tedious autobiographical novels come from. We all have our own lives to be vitally interested in.

Mary and I aren't historians but we both like history. Also, we both grew up reading sf and love exotic and alien settings. I can't speak for Mary, but I just don't get on with modern sf. There's something about most of it that puts me off, so writing sf, for me, is out. But sixth century Constantinople is not only historical, it is as exotic and alien as some sf settings.

Then you have our protagonist, a Greek eunuch who is Lord Chamberlain to an emperor. He's a guy who has been hurt in a manner that his life can never be made exactly right and whole again. He is rather solitary, a man of Spartan tastes, given to black moods. He has his principles and though he works for the emperor, he never trusts authority to do the right thing. The killers he apprehends rarely end up handed over to the authorities. He gets along and does his job but he is, as a Mithran, not to mention as a eunuch, an outsider who hides the fact from his employer. In other words, he is pretty much me. So, you see, I am writing about what I know.

9:20 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yes, I suppose, Eric.

While Theo MacGreggor (in Catfish Guru) was essentially me with some personal changes and a better education, Meg Malloy was not (although her personality was probably similar to my wife's). That said, when asked how similar I am to Derek Stillwater, I tend to pause a bit.

Derek is a PhD in biochemistry and microbiology. I have a BS in microbiology w/(if I actually had a minor) a minor in biochemistry. I'm interested in chemical and bioterrorism.

Derek's into boats and kayaking and martial arts. I like boats, kayaking and martial arts.

Derek is neurotic and a hypochondriac who has problems with authority.


Actually, in book talks, my line is, "I am not a terrorist, nor do I know any terrorists, although I do have two sons."

10:18 AM  
Anonymous gregory huffstutter said...

I think the saying should be: "Write what you want to find out about."

That way you approach the research phase with excitement, instead of dread. And it prevents 'lazy writing' -- where you only rely on your own experiences -- instead of stretching yourself to find the best way to tell the story.

1:40 PM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

All of my stories, long and short, have tied into some event or setting I've personally experienced. I've never been to Albania, and I've never ridden a horse, so I'm sure that if I wrote a story about an Albanian cowboy it would come off as superficial, no matter how much research I did.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...

The “write what you know” idiom always seems to point to knowledge of locations, professions, or personal skills. How are we going to write about an astronaut if we’ve never been in space or a medical thriller if we’re not a physician? New writers like the one you mentioned tend to agonize over setting a story in Ohio rather than Minnesota. For me, the biggest element missing from the rule is that it doesn’t mention the most important factor: human beings.

As an example, STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS are virtually identical plots. It doesn’t matter that one is set in a fantasy world and the other in a place far, far away. Lucas and Tolkien wrote what they knew about: the emotions, hearts and souls of Frodo and Luke. The writers imaginations took them to the place where the story unfolded. So for me, writing what I know means writing about my characters. Then I can drop them into any world I choose to create.

1:31 PM  
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