Write what you know…or maybe not

by P.D. Martin

This is my first Murderati blog and I’m really excited to be part of the gang – some great authors here!

You’ll see from my ‘tag’ that I’m “The Aussie”; however, while I am an Aussie my books are actually set in the US. But more about that later. Given it’s my intro into Murderati I thought I better actually introduce myself 🙂 before I dive into the main part of my blog, which looks at writing what you know.

I grew up with a love of books, and was particularly drawn to fantasy and whodunits. I graduated from Nancy Drew and Famous Five (remember them?) to Agatha Christie at the tender age of eight and in grade five I wrote my first crime novella.

From there I went on a bit of a detour into maths and science, which led me to psychology at university. At this time I was also singing (yes, something totally different again), and through singing and songwriting I rediscovered my love of writing. But it was not an easy road!

After writing three unpublished young adult novels, I decided to try my hand at my other early love, crime fiction. The result was Body Count, my first published novel. Now I have written five novels featuring Aussie FBI profiler Sophie Anderson and one ebook novella.

So, now that you know a bit more about the newest addition to Murderati, I thought I’d focus on something I didn’t do when starting my crime fiction series…

There’s an old adage that’s often talked about when you start writing: Write what you know. It’s great advice, however, things don’t always go to plan!

Body Count is based on a dream (well, really nightmare) I had many years ago. In that dream, I was investigating the deaths of some friends. I was me, but I was also some kind of law enforcement officer. When I decided to turn the nightmare into a book, the first decision I had to make was about my protagonist. Would she be a cop? Crime-scene tech? What I was really interested in was criminal psychology; and so I decided to follow my gut and make my heroine a profiler.

My next step was research, which revealed that profiling wasn’t used nearly as much here in Australia as it is in other countries. It also seemed that the FBI was leading the way when it came to using profiling as a law enforcement tool.

So, now I had an FBI profiler (and ex-cop), but I’ve never been a cop or a profiler. My only link to this world was that I studied psychology and criminology at university. And to top it off, I was setting my book in the US, but I live in Australia.

So much for write what you know! At least my main character is an Aussie!

In many instances research can bridge the gap, including talking to people who are working in the field. It’s an invaluable step when you’re NOT “writing what you know”. The location can be tricky too, even with the wonders of Google Earth and Google’s street view. While these are amazing tools, it’s not the same as actually being there.

I’ve been to America several times, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to visit every location I’ve written about. Body Count was set mostly in Washington DC and Quantico, with a few scenes in Arizona. I managed to get to both DC and Quantico, but not Arizona.

The directions feature of Google Maps is also a great way to add in a sense of place – you can talk about your characters driving down particular streets and highways. Of course, the risk is that while Google Maps says to take certain roads from point A to point B, the locals might say something like: “You’d never take the I-10 at that time of day. Are you crazy?”

Google’s features are certainly fantastic tools for novelists setting their books overseas, and it also helps that I’ve got a few friends who’ve married Americans. So when I need to check an expression or a suburb in LA that ‘fits’ with my character, I’ve got people to call on.

I love visiting the States, and during my last trip I had great fun scouting out different locations for abductions, body dump sites, etc. That trip was to L.A., where my third, fourth and fifth books are set. And I also took extensive photos and video footage of one of my locations for book 5, Kiss of Death. I even posted some of the pics and video footage on my website for readers, as part of my ‘case file’ for Kiss of Death. One of the videos is below – it shows where my victim was attacked and the trail she would have been running down. Please excuse my commentary!

So, while there are disadvantages of NOT “writing what you know” I think it’s still possible to make it work. And on the plus side for me, any time I visit the US it’s tax-deductible!

23 thoughts on “Write what you know…or maybe not

  1. Monique Diplock

    I tend to write what i want and make sure it all makes sense later, if that makes sense, i hate things getting in the way of a good flow,

    Great to see a fellow aussie on here, xx

  2. Barbie

    Hey, as the biggest fan of Toni's blogs I was reluctant to like whoever "replaced" her, but I actually really liked this blog post! Welcome, P. D 🙂

    I agree on NOT writing what you know. It's just that… what we know is so limited, I think writing should go further than that. I want to be an author when I "grow up". I'm 22, and I've been writing for a long time. Most interestingly, most of my characters are adults, they've always been. So, at 11, 12, I was writing about 25 year olds. Now, I write comfortably about 30 something year olds. They live different realities from what I've lived, they have different perspectives on life, and, at first, I was so scared I wouldn't 'get it', because I'm a kid, but then, I realized, I KNOW a lot of adults. I see them, I hear them, I read them, I watch them. So, I can write about them. And I do. I think that goes for mostly anything. Because, in the end, I don't think we only know what we've lived, we also know what we see, what we observe.

    About the places, yup, I get it. I'm from Brazil and pretty much all I've written is set in the US, though, I don't think setting is a big part of my stories. Mostly, in LA and NYC, and, I went to LA the first time years ago, right before I got into writing, so, when I wrote things there, I had an idea in my mind. But, I'd written about NYC for YEARS before I finally went there last October. I literally cried my way through some streets, because I could practically *see* my characters there, stopping for frozen yogurt on their way to work. It did my heart good.


  3. judy wirzberger

    Another howdy. Thought provoking blog. Love your tax deduction. It's certainly something to consider as a side benefit. Next time you are placing a book, mention the location you would like to visit on Murderati and see how many invites you get to stay at homes. I, myself, live just a few miles from Niles Canyon where Charlie Chaplin first filmed and smack dab in the middle of the old Mission district where the Jesuits "converted" the Ohlone Indians.

    Look forward to your posts. (Murderati Fan)

  4. Allison Brennan

    Hi P.D.! Welcome to Murderati from your Sunday partner 🙂 Great introductory blog 🙂 You're so much like me! Except, I'm not an Aussie . . . would love to visit sometime though! I write crime fiction but I've never been a cop or a profiler or a private investigator. I write about them though! I love research.

  5. Fran

    Welcome to Murderati, PD! You'll hear me whining a lot about you coming up to Seattle to sign at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop (and that goes for the rest of ya too, y'know!), so brace yourself!

    Local writer, Nicola Griffith, set part of her first "Aud" novel in Norway, but she's never been. She says that lots and lots of quality research can compensate for actually going, although it may be less fun. I do hope you get to go to Arizona at some point. Loved the video clip too!

  6. KDJames

    Great post, PD, and welcome to Murderati! Love 'listening" to the slight differences of Aussie English (dated a guy in college who was from Melbourne and this post made me think of him).

    (sorry to be brief — writing)

  7. JT Ellison

    Welcome to Murderati – PD!!! We're so lucky to have you and your unique perspective. I felt like Allison – it's almost as if you crawled into my head for your post today. Great start!

  8. JT Ellison

    BTW – `Rati, we had to turn the CAPTCHA back on because of the naughty SPAM we were getting, so bear with us and remember to fill out the form after your comment!

  9. Micki D

    The video is very interesting.. alto short… thanks for sharing it and your 'ideas' with us… enjoy the day

  10. J.D. Rhoades

    Welcome P.D.!

    You could aways do what I've done…just make someplace up that's sort of, but not exactly like a real place. I can put the back roads of Gibson County,the lighthouse on Pass Island or the newspaper office in downtown Blainesville any damn where I please.

    BTW, those of you annoyed by the CAPTCHAs: The alternative is JT taking hours off from writing to do spam killing. None of us want that, I'm sure.

  11. pari noskin taichert

    Welcome to Murderati! I'm so glad you're here.

    As to writing what you know or don't know, I'm on a binge right now. Most of my work has a definite paranormal edge and that's been growing larger. But I don't talk with insects and expect them to do as I request.

    And the book I'm writing right now takes place in the time of myths in Greece . . . before many of the myths we know were developed. I'm having to make all of it up and it's both daunting and exhilarating!

  12. David Corbett

    A hearty welcome, PD.

    I too studied "maths," though here in the States we singularize it to math. Why? Oh who knows.

    As to the subject of your post–Grace Paley famously advised: "Don't write what you know. Write what you don't know about what you know."

    I'd say you're off to a grand start on all fronts. Welcome aboard.

    (Or is that "aboards"?)


    P.S. Count me in with Louise — if you need a consult on northern California, San Francisco area specifically, feel free to drop a query. (God, that sounds vaguely … )

  13. Toby Neal

    I LOVE google earth and used it in my 'research' too! I also believe in getting experts from law enforcement, I talk about this on my latest blog post in "Gathering your writing team"http://www.tobyneal.net/
    I'm going to Quantico in my next book too, and I'm going to check out how you handled it by buying yours!
    aloha and thx for the great post!

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi PD

    Sorry to be late to the party – as always. Great post. Welcome to the 'Rati crew!

    Google Earth is OK, but can be very out of date. Our house is still a hole in the ground …

  15. Reine

    Or in places like Boston where Google (and other mapping data bases) don't show the excessive number of one-way streets or no left or right, or any other at all kind of turns!

    Anyway, best wishes PD. I'm so glad you are here.

  16. PD Martin

    Thanks for all the comments., guys! I well and truly feel welcome 🙂

    And it was great hearing everyone's research, location and 'write what you know' points of view.

  17. Lynn in Texas

    I don't post often but I read try to read Murderati daily. Welcome, PD! And like the others have offered for their states, you can use me for any info on Texas or Louisiana!

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