03 December 2016

Writing What I Knew

How many times have we, as writers, heard that we should "write what we know"? I'm not sure I always agree with that piece of advice--I'd rather it be "write what you feel comfortable writing," or "write the kind of things you like to read." What you know--or at least what I know--isn't always interesting enough to carry a story. Besides, if Asimov, Bradbury, Verne, Heinlein, Serling, etc., had written only what they knew . . . well, you've heard that argument before.

But in the case I'm about to describe, I chose to heed the advice.

Work files

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a copy of the current issue (Oct.-Jan.) of Strand Magazine, which contains one of my stories, called "Jackpot Mode." It's one of those tales that was fun to write, partly because--for a change--I covered a subject that was extremely familiar to me, once upon a time.

A bit of boring background, here. I hired on with IBM right out of college, back when the pharaoh was building the pyramids, and stayed with the company for thirty years. (That time-span included a four-year leave-of-absence to the Air Force.) I worked as both a marketing rep and a systems engineer, and for most of my career I was what was then called a "Finance Industry Specialist," which means I spent a lot of time in banks, from Atlanta to Anchorage, Boston to Burbank, Minneapolis to Manila. My specialty area was the software for IBM teller stations, check-processing systems, and ATMs.

Which brings us to my Strand story. Financial institutions have always been prime fodder for crime writers, and for the past forty years bank robbers seem to have had an unusual fondness for automated teller machines. There must be something especially tempting about the fact that so many thousands of dollars are sitting right there in a box near the sidewalk--never mind the fact that it's encased in half a ton of steel. Even in this day and age, stories of dimwitted, would-be thieves trying to blow up, drill through, or drag away ATMs are regularly featured on the evening news. These attempts, as I'm sure you know, almost always fail. So I figured, why not write a story about a couple of inside guys--a bank programmer and an equipment repairman--who team up and try to do it the right way?


I should mention at this point that not everything I put into this story works exactly the way I said it does--after all, I don't want somebody using information in my fictional frolics to actually steal a small (or large) fortune. But most of it is technically correct. In the olden days ATMs would occasionally suffer electronic or mechanical indigestion and spew cash like oversized slot machines until the error was found and corrected. We had a term for this thankfully rare occurrence: it was called "jackpot mode." (I saw it happen only twice, during routine off-line testing.) It also served as what I thought was a good story title.

Like several of my recent mysteries for the Strand and other magazines, this one ran a little long, around 8000 words. But there was a lot of detail involved as well as a lot of money, and I can never resist putting in multiple plot twists. If you read the story, I hope you'll like it.

Mining your past

Do you often find yourself using personal memories and first-hand knowledge from your jobs, hobbies, etc., to come up with fictional material? If you do, and if these experiences are unmodified, I can only assume your life has been more eventful than mine. I suppose I could write about making ill-fated stock market investments, or watching Netflix movies until four in the morning, or regularly mowing my wife's newly planted flowers that I mistake for weeds--but who'd want to read about that? Instead, my stories usually consist of normal, routine happenings that I then inject with steroids, asking myself "what if" and plugging in exaggerations that (hopefully) make those incidents more interesting and entertaining than they were in the real world.

The person I always think of when this subject comes up is Nevada Barr, an excellent mystery writer who once lived the kind of life her fictional heroine lives now. Nevada was a park ranger for many years, like the main character of her twenty-plus novels, and the author's familiarity and comfort level with the National Park settings and her protagonist's occupation make her books authentic and believable--and even educational. (She once said she wasn't quite as brave and daring as Anna Pigeon is, but Nevada's face is always the one I picture in my mind when I read about Anna's adventures.) Most writers aren't fortunate enough to have that kind of background--and when they don't, they have to make up for it with research and imagination.

Author Marie Anderson once observed, in The Writer, "I used to write what I know. I used to write about infertility, motherhood, suburban middle-class life, blue-collar Catholic childhood, law school from a dropout's perspective. I'd send out those stories and never see them again, not even the SASEs. Then, somewhere, I came across a better rule: know what you write."

That sounds better to me, too.


  1. Good stuff, John. And in answer to your questions, I definitley draw on first-hand knowledge or life experience. But, of course, we can't have experienced everything so we do have to supplement that with research and imagination. Otherwise, like that quote from Howard Nemerov said, we'd have an awful lot of free time...

  2. Congratulations on Jackpot Mode! and on another good post.

  3. Enjoyed the post here, John — as always! And congrats on the new story too!

    As Paul said, I often draw on real-life experience--but often shifted and augmented in such ways that I anticipate even those close to me might have trouble locating any autobiographical elements in some stories. (Sometimes the real-life experiences are more clear, of course; a couple of the sections in my book ON THE ROAD WITH DEL & LOUISE are drawn from travels Tara and I took to the same places my protagonists travel--but even there, neither Tara and I were involved in any crimes in those locations... I promise!)

  4. Paul, some of the best examples I can think of, of writers who draw from past experiences, are former (and current) law-enforcement folks like O'Neil De Noux, R.T. Lawton, David Dean, etc. There's a believability and authenticity there that always helps.

    Thanks, Janice. The "story behind the story" posts are always fun to write.

    Art, you're correct--road trips, and any kind of travel to interesting places, are great sources of story material. The globetrotting I did with IBM and in the Air Force pops up all the time, in my stories. (And Google Maps always helps in making sure nothing's changed too much since I went there.) Then all you have to add is a little imagination.

  5. John, was that pharaoh Khufu or Khafre?
    Excellent article and your short story in THE STRAND is outstanding.
    I've bled my background again and again. Several of my novels are fictional accounts of cases we worked when I was in Homicide. But sometimes we have to pull a Monty Python - "And now for something completely different." My next book is a paranormal secret agent novel set in 1936. Bottom line - it was fun to write.

  6. Thank you, O'Neil--glad you liked the story!

    Yes, I can imagine you take some of those real cases and give them some extra twists--partly to disguise them and partly to make them even more interesting.

    Looking forward to your paranormal secret agent novel--I bet that WAS fun. Nobody can accuse you of writing the same kind of thing all the time!

  7. John, I started out writing what I know, then gradually gravitated to what I know combined with research I could get lost in to create historical mysteries with criminals I'd met as characters for the stories and their cons and scams as story lines, and have recently slid into mind-writing with whatever comes along in the grey time between hitting the mattress and falling asleep and/or before fully waking in the morning. This latter form needs to hit the computer screen fast before it fades and even then it always seems to find its own path. Nothing is wasted. All goes into writing inventory, whether it's a newspaper story, the manner of my neighbor's speech, a physical characteristic, a Chinese proverb, a saying by Gandhi, whatever gets impressed onto the mind and so on. You never know when a tidbit will make the perfect fit.

  8. Good thought, RT. Wherever you get those ideas of yours, you sure turn them into great stories.

    You're right, nothing is wasted. File it away and use it when the time's right. I suspect that you--like O'Neil--most enjoy those writing projects that turn out far different from the rest.

  9. Hi John,

    I often use real life and fictionalize it for my stories. For example, when I started the Kim Reynolds mystery series, I used my knowledge of academic librarianship. The Inferno Collection was the first novel in this series and I was fascinated by the topic using my knowledge to good advantage.

  10. Jacqueline, that kind of thing helps, doesn't it?

    I think two of the real-life areas I use the most in my writing are the things I did in my job (not just technical but people-related) and the locations I traveled to. And all of us of course find ourselves using our old friends and colleagues and acquaintances as fictional characters (or at least composites). But, as someone once said, at some point our real-life experiences will run dry, and imagination has to fill in the gaps.

  11. I was a newspaper copy editor for 30 years, and I used that background to write three stories featuring a copy editor who reluctantly solved crimes after stumbling into them. I sold the stories to Futures, Mysterical-E and Over My Dead Body.

    I had hoped to write a series of novels with this character, but of course the newspaper business -- as I knew it -- went kerflooey. Read today, the stories sadly seem like period pieces. So I decided to try something else.

    I'm happy to say I'm working on a new story with another character, based on another subject I know something about.

    Meanwhile, thanks for the reminder about the Strand story. I hope to pick up a copy during my next visit to the bookstore.

  12. I sometimes draw on my own experiences in stories, but I try not to do it too often. After all, lots of mystery writers are academics or former academics of one sort or another--how many mysteries about English professors does the world really need? It helps to have friends (and, in my case, daughters) with interesting professions--it makes the research easier and more fun.

  13. Mark, I'm sure that journalism experience has stood you in good stead, no matter how much the business has changed.

    Glad to hear you're working on more projects--good luck with all of them! Hope you like my story his time in the Strand!

    Bonnie, you're right--it's great to use the knowledge of friends and family members in your stories. Our kids are (1) a chemical engineer, (2) a physician, and (3) a schoolteacher, and when you combine their experiences and brainpower and their spouses' too, that can help a bit when you have to do research. I pester them all pretty regularly.

  14. I love the quote, "Know what you write." Yep. Do the research and just jump in!

  15. I like it too, Eve. Wish I were the one who said it.


  16. John, know what you write is a great little nugget of wisdom which became a helluva lot easier with the growth of the Internet. If we don't know enough about what we want to write, we only have to remember that Google is our friend. A few clicks and we can get up close and personal with anything and anywhere on the planet. I get a headache remembering what research was like in the olden days.

  17. How right you are, Earl. As long as you remember that everything on the Internet isn't true (I still know folks who believe it is). And, as I mentioned earlier, Google Maps can save you a lot of embarrassment when writing about places you visited long ago--it can tell you, for instance, if such-and-such a hotel or restaurant is still on the same corner where it used to be, years ago.

    I once received an email from a lady who said she'd read a story I published in AHMM set in South Africa--she said it was so obvious to her, from the story, that I had been there and knew the area well. I wrote back and thanked her for her kindness, but what i didn't tell her was that the closest I've ever been to South Africa is the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. As you said, research is just easier now.

  18. I agree, good stuff! Have to read your story!

  19. Hey Mary!! Many thanks. Hope you'll like the story.

  20. Good article, I agree with the author that everyone should write what he knows. This applies not only to writing, this can be attributed to the whole. Each person finds a favorite thing and become a professional in this. This is the key to successful development of the whole of humanity. I advise the author of a good place where writing will bring a good income http://paidpaper.net/coursework-reviews/. My son is there orders essay constantly since found his life's work in a different field, but wants to finish university.

  21. Thanks, Teddy. I would probably do more "writing what I know" if I KNEW more. Seriously, the story I mentioned was surprisingly easy to put together because I was comfortable with the subject matter; I didn't have to spend quite as much time trying to make sure that what I was writing was believable. (If that makes any sense.)

    Best of luck to you in your literary endeavors--and best wishes to your son.

    Thanks for stopping in here at SleuthSayers!


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