Write what you know …

Zoë Sharp

… is advice given to every wannabe writer at one time or another.

My advice?

Ignore it.

Let’s face it, everybody else’s knowledge is a hell of a lot more interesting from the outside than from the inside. Sometimes knowing too much about a subject will actively hold you back from letting your imagination take hold and run with it.

David Corbett, for example, worked as a private investigator for many years. While this experience undoubtedly informs and colours his writing, he does not write a series about a PI.

JT Ellison’s bio says: “She was a presidential appointee and worked in The White House and the Department of Commerce before moving into the private sector. As a financial analyst and marketing director, she worked for several defense and aerospace contractors.”

JT writes a series about a Nashville Homicide detective, Lt Taylor Jackson, and medical examiner Dr Samantha Owens, rather than global thrillers with a financial meltdown theme.

Of course, others use their life experiences more directly. PD Martin has a degree in psychology, and studied criminal law and criminology (among other things!). She has written five crime thrillers featuring Aussie FBI profiler, Sophie Anderson.

And Pari Noskin Taichert has worked in PR for many years, as does Sasha Solomon, the heroine of her series.

Alexandra Sokoloff was a dancer, choreographer and singer. But she writes crime suspense novels quite frequently featuring a paranormal theme.

Louise Ure also had a career in advertising and marketing before turning to crime writing. But her standalone novels feature a jury consultant, a blind mechanic, and a roadside assistance operator. How diverse can one be?

Gar Anthony Haywood is also a graphic designer, but writes about retired crime fighting duo Joe and Dottie Loudermilk, PI Aaron Gunner, and standalone thrillers under his own name and as Ray Shannon.

Stephen Jay Schwartz was Director of Development for Wolfgang Petersen developing screenplays for production. A fascinating world of intrigue and glamour, you might think. But he chose to write about LAPD Robbery-Homicide detective Hayden Glass. Although it would seem from Stephen’s blog on research that a lot of what he knows has indeed gone into his character.

For myself, I’ve done a variety of things—including some I’m not allowed to talk about—but for the majority of my life I have been a freelance photojournalist, which has had its share of excitement over the years. And yet the heroine of my crime thriller series, Charlie Fox, is a failed Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard, not an investigative reporter.

Maybe the reason for that is because I know from the inside that my old day-job is not anywhere near as glamorous as people think. Just as I’m sure David would be the first to tell you that PIs do not rush around investigating murders and swapping wisecracks with beautiful mysterious women.

Well, not every day, anyway.

So what makes some writers keep such close ties between their factual and fictional lives, and others keep the two so far apart? And do they rejoice or regret that decision?

And as a reader, are you attracted to a book that happens to revolve around something you’re particularly interested in, or do you steer clear of it, suspecting that the demands of the story may stretch what you know of reality just that bit too far?

This week’s Word of the Week is supercilious, meaning haughty, scornful, arrogant, from the Latin supercilium, eyebrow. Hence a haughty look expressed by a raised eyebrow.

And finally, if anybody is near South Shields next Monday, I will be appearing with fellow crime authors Matt Hilton and Graham Pears at the Central Library Theatre as part of World Book Night — Crime Time. Hope to see you there!

21 thoughts on “Write what you know …

  1. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I want to know what you're not allowed to talk about, Zoe. Tell me you were a spy or something. Or maybe you did a stint in prison. Is there a Bonnie & Clyde story in your past?

  2. Sarah W

    I second Stephen, Zoë!

    Several of my MCs have been librarians–but they're BAMF librarians, while I'm more of a SOFA librarian . . .

    I do have several conmen, an assassin, a serial killer (no, wait, she's a librarian, too, funny story), and the little old lady who likes to boost cars . . . But i think each of them visit a library . . . weird. Maybe it's a touchstone thing?

  3. Richard Maguire

    Hi Zoe.

    As a reader, I am attracted to books that revolve around something I'm interested in, or have experienced. I used to be a lawyer, till I got sense. So I've read quite a few legal thrillers/mysteries. Some are very badly written–mostly by lawyers. But there are some outstanding ones. Scott Turow's first novel comes to mind. And, though I only discovered him not long before he died, the works of George V. Higgins. I've also enjoyed Alafair Burke's novels set in the DA's Office in Portland. Like Turow and Higgins, she writes with authority about the criminal justice system.

    I'm also a sucker for crime novels with a horsey background. I've ridden all my life, worked in stables, and owned horses. Yet the Dick Francis novels leave me cold. I know during his lifetime he sold millions of books–but he seemed to be using the same plot and characters in every one of them. Anyhow, I like my crime fiction hard-boiled.

    A while ago I came across a quote from Eudora Welty. "Write what you don't know about what you know." And somebody (I wish I knew who, to give credit) added: "Write what you don't remember about what you remember." (It wasn't David, by any chance?)

  4. Tammy Cravit

    As a reader, I will read books about things I'm interested in, so long as they're well written and plausible. If the author hasn't done her homework about the topic at hand, and it shows (or I know enough about the topic to spot mistakes), that's a definite turn-off, though. For example, I've worked as a paralegal and mediator, and so I enjoy legal thrillers — but there are far too many out there where the author failed to do even the basic amount of homework to get the legal stuff. Those tend to get flung across the room, or summarily deleted from my iPad (as appropriate). It's really not that hard, in my experience, to find a friendly lawyer willing to give an eyeball to parts of a novel. It's also not that hard anymore to get ones hands on the code of laws for the place a story is set.

    In my writing, I've done a mix in terms of writing what I know. My first published novel (and the second in the series, which I'm writing presently) were set in the child welfare system because I worked in that system and had a pretty good handle on both the legal aspects and the places where criminal mayhem was plausible. But I've also written stories about other characters – a cop's wife, a librarian whose father was a cop, a computer hacker, etc.

    I will say that I tend to write more often about what I know, only because the research is easier that way. But I've heard someplace the axiom "write what you want to know, whether or not you know it now", and that's the one I tend to use. I'm just very conscious that when I write about something I don't know about, I need to do my homework.

  5. Lisa Alber

    I third Stephen and Sarah!

    I definitely don't write about what I know. I have no first-hand experience with crime, whether professionally or personally, yet I write about crime. I try to imagine myself writing about something I know, but what would that be? Technical writing? Growing up in Marin? Or maybe a woman like me who works from home and what—? Witnesses a murder within her condo community? YAAAAAWN.

    I have a friend who is writing a mystery that is very close to her own world and lifestyle. Sometimes I wonder why some writers wander away from their worlds and why others stick close to home. For myself, I do enough self-work, have done enough therapy…If I were to write about a character similar to me, I wouldn't break any new ground.

  6. Jake Nantz

    I'm a teacher. If I wrote only about my daily life, it'd bore people to tears. Fifteen pages of description on a less-than-handsome teacher grading papers for three hours after he's done teaching for the day?

    Yup. That's got NYT Bestseller written all over it.

    I tell my students to write about subjects they are passionate enough about to do their research/homework and get things right. Then I tell them to take 90% of that back out of the story, because it's not important that the READER knows all the great stuff you found in your research, just that you have just enough that the reader can be convinced with certainty that YOU know it, and got it right.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    Same answer applies — sorry!

    And your librarian heroine is hardly your ordinary librarian, is she? A little authenticity always helps give everything else the ring of truth.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Richard
    "Write what you don't remember about what you remember."

    Yes, it was David who said that — in a blog here last November.

    I, too, was a big horse nut in my youth, owning horses and working with them. But it took me until FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine, before I included horses in the story. Looking back, I have no idea why it took me so long, except that my very first novel (the one I wrote when I was fifteen) revolved around horses and received nothing but rave rejections. Possibly somewhere in my psyche was a subliminal message that I should steer clear of them?

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy
    I love the axiom you quote — "write what you want to know, whether or not you know it now" and shall steal that to use myself!

    The child welfare system is an excellent setting for a crime novel. We are fascinated by damaged characters, and sadly the welfare system seems to either generate—or be the magnet for—those who have experienced life from the underside, with all its cruelty and broken dreams.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lisa
    Hmm, I think I said too much already 🙂

    I like to step outside my comfort zone when I write. Like now — I’m writing a supernatural thriller that is somewhat different from my usual crime stuff. Although there are several serious crimes involved!

    I know when I start to get to the edges of my experience or research, the story tends to falter. Writing can be a difficult enough endeavour to maintain at the best of times — as is keeping faith in the jumbled-up imaginings from your own head. Perhaps sticking closer to one’s own experience might make the process flow more readily?

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake
    How do you know a story about a teacher wouldn’t make the bestseller lists? I feel a Henry David Thoreau quote coming on: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” What does it drive them to do?

    I use the same analogy about research myself. Find out as much as you can and then leave 90% of it out. It’s just those little snippets that create verisimilitude.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex
    Ah, would have been so much better if I’d read all the way down to the bottom of the comments before I began answering the ones at the top, wouldn’t it?

    “I mix up what I already know with what I want to understand.”

    Love that quote, too!

  13. David Corbett

    Ironically, though I do recall quoting Eudora Welty's, "Write what you don't know about what you know," I don't remember saying "Write what you don't remember about what you remember." Kinda wish I did. Gee, maybe I should write about that.

    I think to write well you have to know enough about something to have authority, but no so much it's drudgery getting it down on the page. Something about the story has to remain fresh and primed for the engagement of the imagination, not just your storehouse of knowledge. Otherwise it's like taking dictation from the encyclopedia.

  14. PD Martin

    Yes, the good old 'write what you know'. I was also told that many times when I was starting out and although it's true I have studied psychology and criminology those initial studies were literally the tip of the iceberg (maybe not even the tip) to the research I ended up doing on profiling, etc.

    And now I'm also wondering if perhaps you 'know' more about the world of body guards or spies that you're letting on. Hmmm…..

    And I love Jake's comment about the 90%. It's funny, you need the research but I think a lot of writers are tempted to try and put it all in once they're done!

    But I do think the addition of so many authors with police, forensics, spy backgrounds, etc. has made things a little bit harder for crime fiction authors. It's certainly raised the bar in terms of research. Then again, maybe it's harder to write a good spy thriller when you know the intricacies of the intelligence world!

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Here's my favorite:

    "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."
    Donald Rumsfeld

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi PD
    I think you're right — it has raised the bar, but a good story, well told, is still a good story, well told, regardless of the intricate technical knowledge of the author.

    And yes, sometimes not knowing anything about a subject makes translating it into a story easier than knowing too much 🙂

  17. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    Sorry I'm so late. This is a terrific discussion topic.

    I like to read about things I don't know, that are woven into a story about things I have a connection to, in a way that the two inform one another. That said… right now I'm reading a book, MAP OF TRUE PLACES by Brunonia Barry, that takes place in Salem, Massachusetts where I was born, in the very neighborhood where my family lived for centuries, places where I played as a child, mourned the loss of my grandparents, learned to read, walked to my great-grandparents' house, past my 2nd great-grandparents' house and the sites of my 8th and 9th great-grandparents' house. This might have been distressing had Brunonia not had the feel of it. But she did of course, it being her space as much as my own. This is a fact that is very stunning really, as she was born there too, and we grew up in the same neighborhood across the harbor in Old Town, Marblehead. Yet, the experience within the story is different and new, and psychologically exquisite. If it were simply a memoir-like experience it wouldn't have grabbed me. She paints the place so well, and the characters in it are so real in that space, that it gives her mystery the perfect home.

    I have similar accolades for others here but must pick just one, for now. Alex, for example – her fantastic book THE PRICE – is set in a space where I spent many hours walking in my work with medical students, researchers, and doctors, as an academic: a student; a minister; a therapist visiting patients and family, and as a patient… years and years of my life so invested in the eeriness of the space that I recognized it by Alex's description of a goddamn passageway that still gives me nightmares. Yet, her book is a brilliant new story in my familiar space.

    So yes, I love the familiar that exposes depth of experience normally hidden, revealed by mystery.

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