03 September 2018

Write What THEY Know

One of the time-worn chestnuts about getting ideas is "write what you know," and many people point out that staying on familiar ground will limit you. Obviously, it depends on what you know. It certainly didn't hurt Tom Clancy, did it? Or maybe Xaviera Hollander. If you have the right experience, you're golden.
The shared experiences some people think are mundane will be fresh if you put YOUR slant on them. And if they're shared experiences, you already touch a shared nerve that will affect many readers.

Everyone has a first job, first day of school, first date, first heartbreak and dozens of other rites of passage. One of the great literary themes is loss of innocence, which fills a lot of the high school literature reading list. "The Girl in the Red Bandanna," which I published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine last spring, revisits a summer job I only held for one night.

I've played guitar since the mid-sixties and one of my favorite stories was inspired by seeing the
Muddy Waters Blues Band when I was still heavily into the Monkees and Paul Revere & The Raiders. My musical world changed that night, but the story has had over 20 rejections and I've run out of places to send it. Oh, well...

Most of my titles are also song titles because Woody Guthrie, my wannabe rock & roller PI, came from meeting a classmate at my high school reunion. She was now a full-time session musician in Detroit. Blood On the Tracks, Woody's first adventure, was a long time coming, but he now appears in four novels and a few short stories, all of which take their names from songs.

My wife insists that Hell is really middle school. WE all have nightmares about it except the kids whose voices never changed, never had a growth spurt, or never went through puberty. Judy Blume is one of many writers who turned the angst into a gold mine. My own Postcards of the Hanging grew out of a scandal that rocked my school senior year.

Bel Kaufman had a huge bestseller recounting a first year of teaching in Up the Down Staircase, and Braithwaite fared nearly as well with To Sir With Love. My own Run Straight Down comes from my teaching, too, but has a little darker perspective.

Several of my friends (well, two. I don't have many) ask when I'm going to write a story revolving around theater. Well, Linda Barnes wrote an amateur sleuth series featuring Michael Sprague as an actor who solved mysteries. She gave the series up because, as she pointed out, if people got killed in every production Sprague joined, eventually nobody would cast the guy anymore. Barnes and I both grew up in Southern Michigan, moved to New England, and taught English and theater. She's younger and taller than I am, and much nicer. She also went back to theater for her standalone The Perfect Ghost a few years ago. If you have any familiarity with Hamlet, you might check it out.

Three days ago, I finished a first draft of my first attempt to use theater as a background for a story. I  only had to look up one detail that I no longer remembered after several years. It was fun to write, too, a refreshing break from my usual rock and blues.
My favorite poster from when I was directing...

Everybody knows something nobody else does. And maybe it's so obvious we don't even know we know it.

Now for the BSP. John Floyd and I both have stories in the newest issue of Mystery Weekly, now available at your favorite website.


  1. Steve, supposedly every story's been done already, so it truly is what personal slant or perspective we bring to what we write that makes it unique and interesting. There really isn't that much new under the sun.

  2. Good luck with your new book- that poster is certainly eye catching!

  3. Janice, the poster artist and I worked on dozens of plays together over about a 20-year period, acting together (or with me directing him) and designing sound. He also did the posters for about a dozen shows I directed in various theaters, this being the last one, about ten years ago. When I decided to self-publish, I called him up right away because I knew we could work together.

    And Paul, absolutely it's all been done before, but not your way. Polti claimed there were 36 plots, and several of those were actually variations on each other. Right now I spend as much time worrying about whether I'm plagiarizing myself as I do worrying about whether something is really fresh.

  4. I've been fortunate to have spent most of my life in law enforcement (besides eight years as a private eye). Makes it easier to write what I know but it took years to learn how to write well. I'm still learning.

  5. Steve, as it's been said many times before, it's all grist for the mill, and "I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me." Terence, Roman playwright (195/185–159 BC).

  6. I tell my students "write what you know for your first book" - meaning, have your protagonist be in an industry/career you know about, so you don't have to spend all your time researching when you should be learning how to write. But I think if you write more than two series, you're going to have to break out of that. I have five series, and some standalones in other genres, and one of the pleasures(now that I know how to write) is researching different professions and locations.

  7. Melodie, one of the great perks of working for so long in community theater is that I know IT specialists, social workers, engineers, accountants, EMTs, attorneys, and craftsmen by the truckload. There are very few professions I can't find someone to help me research. I prefer interviews to books, magazines and online because the stories these people share help me understand the characters better.

  8. I hadn't thought of Hollander in years!


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