Showing posts with label write what you know. Show all posts
Showing posts with label write what you know. Show all posts

03 December 2016

Writing What I Knew



by John M. Floyd


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?

Technicalities

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.



05 July 2016

Writing What You Know -- the Hard Way

by Barb Goffman

We've all heard this advice: write what you know. I've had editing clients take this advice the wrong way, thinking if they haven't experienced something themselves, they shouldn't write about it. In actuality, if you want to write about something and don't have enough information to get the details right, then do research. Learn all about it. Then you'll be able to write about what you know.

I got some firsthand experience Friday night about kidney stones. I'd never had one before, and I hope I never go through this process again. It started as a slight nagging pain, as if I'd slept wrong and a small area of my lower back had a knot in it. Within just two or three minutes, the nagging had become throbbing, and I swallowed an Advil. Not ten minutes later, the pain had become so acute that I thought I had really injured my back from briefly (thirty seconds, tops) carrying something heavy earlier in the day. (Last autumn, I aggravated some back muscles carrying home my escaped dog--I had no leash with me when I found him. A diagonal area across my back suddenly began throbbing hours later. This pain was similar.) I found the leftover pain medicine from the autumn injury and downed a muscle relaxer. Ten minutes after that, the pain was still increasing, and with tears in my eyes, I headed to the emergency room.

The pain came and went over the next few hours in waves. Sometimes I had no pain whatsoever. Three minutes later, I was crying for help, my pain a ten on the 1 - 10 pain scale. That is the way with a kidney stone, I've learned, which is what they diagnosed me with. My friend Becky Muth told me that she had kidney stone once. The pain of passing it was worse than when she had a baby, she said, so much so that she said she'd "rather go through childbirth again than pass another kidney stone." Mine hasn't passed yet (I don't think). I'm afraid of what's to come.

I don't know if I'll ever have the opportunity to use this firsthand knowledge in my writing, but I began thinking that perhaps I know people with firsthand knowledge that might be helpful to me and other authors. So I asked friends to share their stories. Here goes.

Having Nearly a Fifth of Your Teeth Pulled at Once

This tooth looks too happy.
I had my impacted wisdom teeth out long ago, and it wasn't fun. But it was nothing like what Becky (yes, same Becky from above) went through when she had six molars removed at once. Her words:

"I had six teeth extracted--all molars in the back. It felt like someone smacked me in the face with a baseball bat. The dentist's office miscalculated when I'd need [[to start]] my prescription, and the anesthesia started to wear off on the way home (about a thirty-five minute drive). I have an okay tolerance for pain as long as I have an outlet for general complaining, but this pain was so intense I couldn't speak. It hurt to nod my head when my husband asked me something. It was the first time I ever used painkillers around the clock. Two more dental visits are required to finish the work, and I'm dreading them. I'd probably choose the kidney stone. At least the medication for that caused me to sleep through a lot of the discomfort."


Experiencing Mysterious Back Pain

My friend author Meriah Crawford had terrible undiagnosed back pain. Turns out it was (is) a herniated disc in her lower back, but she didn't know that at the time. Her words:

"I have a herniated disc right now. It's given me my first real taste of what disability/chronic pain can be. Not sure I could handle it. What has struck me, though, is that it's less painful than the cramps I get (SO HORRIBLE), but I know cramps will pass and won't kill me. The fear (terror, at times) of the back pain gives it a whole other quality, though. I was genuinely afraid of becoming severely disabled or paralyzed through all this. When you don't know what it is, or you know enough to know it can be BAD, that's so much worse, at least for me."


Getting Pinned in a Car Wreck

My friend Diane Hale shares this harrowing tale:

"I was sixteen when it happened. One of those bizarre things; we had a sharp curve in the road, and the rear axle had crystallized, so when Dad thought it was a flat and tried to steer into the desert, it turned out the wheel was bent under the truck. He thought he was steering straight, but the front wheels were turned to compensate. When they hit a build-up of sand, it flipped us. [[The pickup]] flew forty feet before landing on the cab. I was stunned, blacked out when I thought I was pinned, then crawled out. My dad and I walked half a mile before a car came. I still wasn't feeling any pain, but turned out I had a broken pelvis. Perhaps I'm just one who's stunned first, doesn't feel pain until the adrenaline wears off. By the time help arrived (very rural area, a neighbor put a mattress in the back of his station wagon), I was beginning to hurt. I couldn't bend, so they had to pick me up and ease me onto the mattress for the hour-long ride to the hospital. [[It]] was so scary when I first woke up because I'm claustrophobic. Turned out I was sort-of pinned--between my dad and the back of the seat. I still vividly remember crawling out of the truck--both doors popped open--and seeing blood trickling down Dad's forehead. I was more worried about him than about me."

Having Undiagnosed Meningitis

A friend who wishes to remain anonymous tells this story:

"I had meningitis about seventeen years ago this summer. Through a series of horrible bouts of bad luck, I wasn't properly diagnosed and treated for a week. (A small-town doctor diagnosed it as a migraine and gave me pills for nausea and pain, which helped a little). By the time the worst came (I passed out and was sent to the ER), the pain was so intense that ending everything seemed like a wonderful relief. I was young, newly married, and had a six-month-old baby, but I was perfectly happy to accept death if it meant I could escape the pain. I want to stress that that all changed as soon as a neurologist got a hold of me and admitted me into the hospital--within days I felt like a new person who would never trade her life for anything. I've never thought it was a scary or unusual part of my personality, but when I hear of people in intense pain saying they prayed for death, I give a proverbial shrug and say 'yeah, I can see that'." 

Getting Your Nose Broken 

My friend author Alice Loweecey shares this story:

"I got my nose fractured at a karate self-defense class. The brown belt teacher was showing me how to break someone's nose. She made her hand into a stiff chopping weapon and promised to stop short every time. Once--fine. Twice--fine. Three times--WHAM! I literally saw stars and blood GUSHED out of my nose. It started to throb a minute later, and I got a wicked headache shortly after. It took forever to stop the bleeding and the next day my face swelled up and my got a very colorful bruise. To this day that side of my nose crackles a little and I can't rest sunglasses on it."

Being Stabbed

I'll wrap this up with a harrowing story from my friend author CiCi Coughlin, who has been shot and stabbed. Here she focuses on the stabbing, though she mentions the shooting too:

"The thing about an experience like [[being stabbed]] is it's rarely an accident. So, on top of the physical pain and trauma, you generally have a rash of emotions happening: panic, fear, a little bit of anger. There's also a sense of unreality, like it's such an extreme thing to be happening that you almost can't process that it's happening to you. In my case, it was a very unexpected attack when I was 18 and it was a fight for my life situation, so it wasn't just one stab, the end. By the time he stabbed me, I was already pretty banged up and had a concussion, so adrenaline was really high but I was also kinda wonky from the head damage. In some ways, I felt like I was both in the fight and outside watching, wondering who was going to win. 


"Physically, being stabbed was two things. First, it was like a major impact, like getting punched in the shoulder, but with the added issue of a blade. I was stabbed with a very thin, long blade, so that part was more almost a burning sensation, I suspect because the blade was so fine. The other thing is, with a stab wound, there's an in and an out and they are two very distinct sensations. In my case, there was about a five-second delay in between, so it was even more so. Plus, I was stabbed in a joint. The blade nicked the bone, and I had some ligament damage, though not a lot. But I also knew, sort of somewhere in the back of my mind, that it wasn't a potentially fatal blow, and I didn't lose blood as fast as I would have with a torso wound, so I wasn't as woozy as I might have been. Oddly, I'd already been shot in the same shoulder a year or so prior, so I can kind of 'compare.' At least in a shoulder like that, I'd far rather be shot. Might have been different if the shot hadn't gone all the way through, though. The knife actually did, too, so I had a skin puncture front and back. The difference with the knife, again, though, is it doesn't just go in, it goes in and comes out. So it's kind of a double trauma. Also, the bullet was a stray; no one was trying to shoot me, so there wasn't the kind of personal malice to deal with. Even if they had been specifically after me, it still would have been at something of a distance. Someone has to be really in your personal space to stab you, especially from the front. It's very personal and one-on-one -- kind of a twisted intimacy, if that makes sense."

I hope this information is helpful to my author friends. If you have any additional personal experiences you think might help other writers, feel free to share. And they don't have to be bad things. I've never jumped from a plane, for instance, and I never would, but I'd be interested in what that really feels like to do it. And I'd be interested in whether the perspective changes depending on whether the diver was eager or scared before the jump. Readers, please share your experiences, good and bad!

10 October 2015

Write What You Know?

by B.K. Stevens

On a rainy night in late September (and this year, in Virginia, on just about every night in late September, it rained plenty), I had the pleasure of participating in a Mystery Writers of America panel at George Mason University's Fall for the Book festival. The moderator, fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, opened things up by asking us to respond to a time-honored piece of writing advice: "Write what you know." To what extent, Art asked, did we draw on our own experiences when we created our characters and stories? How much did we push beyond the limits of those experiences?

The question came exactly one week before the release of my young adult mystery, Fighting Chance (The Poisoned Pencil/Poisoned Pen Press). My protagonist is a seventeen-year-old male athlete growing up in a small town in Virginia. I'm a woman, I'm decades past seventeen, I was never an athlete at any age, and I grew up in Buffalo, New York. If it's smart to write what we know, I'm in trouble.

The situation made me think back to a guest blog I wrote several years ago for Sleuths' Ink, a writers' group in Springfield, Missouri. In that blog, I compared the views of several classic authors who express opinions about whether writers should stick to writing about what they know. I decided to go back to that topic in this month's SleuthSayer's post. If two or three people on the planet still remember my old Sleuth's Ink blog--and that's undoubtedly a generous estimate--I can assure you this post will be different. Among other things, two of the authors I'll discuss this time are new.

"Write what you know"--next to "show, don't tell," that's probably the advice fiction writers hear most often. It can feel painfully limiting. What if you want to write a war novel, and you've never been to war? You can research battles and weapons, you can read soldiers' memoirs, but can you really know how it feels to run forward into a barrage of bullets or hurl a hand grenade at another human being? Can you describe those moments vividly enough to bring them alive for readers? Or should you forget the war novel and stick to writing novels about preparing tax returns, or tempting toddlers to try new vegetables, or doing whatever else your personal experience has taught you how to do?

Jane Austen stuck to writing what she knew, and she apparently made a conscious decision to do so. In letters written in 1815  and 1816, James Clarke, the Prince Regent's librarian, urges her to broaden her horizons. But when he suggests she write about a learned clergyman, Austen says she lacks the necessary education. When Clarke suggests she write a historical romance about the royal house of Belgium, her refusal is more emphatic. "I could no more write a romance than an epic poem," she says. "I could not sit down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life." Austen insists she should write only about the people, places, and situations she knows best.: "I must keep to my own style, and go on in my own way."

CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810) hires.jpgDid she think all writers should follow her example? In an 1816 letter to her nephew Edward, Austen praises his "strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow." She contrasts them with her own novels, which she describes as "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labor." Some writers, Austen seems to imply, are right to attempt works with greater "variety" than her own.

It's possible, of course, that she didn't really admire her nephew's writing as much as she claims, and didn't really think so little of her own work. We all know how unreliable beta readers can be. But it's clear she thought some writers are wise to limit themselves to writing about what they know best.

Edith Wharton, in The Writing of Fiction, rejects such limits. "As to experience," she says, "the creative imagination can make a little go a long way, provided it remains long enough in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break." The crucial thing for writers, according to Wharton, isn't experience itself. Even if your experiences are limited, your imagination can help you use what you've experienced as a basis for writing about what you haven't.

The Writing of FictionIf writers don't need to experience the things they write about, what do they need? Wharton sees two things as essential. First, writers must have emotional depth: "they must have hearts that can break." Could an emotionally stunted person create characters with powerful feelings, characters readers will care about? Also, writers must spend time reflecting about the events and emotions they've experienced, trying to understand them. Writers may not immediately recognize the significance in their own experiences. After an experience "remains long enough in the mind," however, its potential as the basis for fiction may become clear. 

Wharton's words echo Wordsworth's statement that poetry "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." Both writers seem to agree that we should write not when experiences are new and emotions are raw but after some time has passed, after we've had time to think about what what happened. I'm struck, too, by Wharton's use of the word "brood." It calls to mind the image of a hen brooding over her eggs, warming them, nurturing the life within them. If we brood about our experiences, will we awaken the hidden life they hold? If so, maybe it's the quality of the brooding that matters most, rather than the experiences themselves. Maybe brooding is the key to finding a way to, in Wharton's phrase, "make a little go a long way."

Flannery O'Connor agrees. In "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," she has nothing good to say about people who "think they are already writers by virtue of some experience they've had." "These people," she says, "should be stifled with all deliberate speed." Not all Senators can write riveting political thrillers, and not all police detectives can write gripping mysteries.

If you're meant to be a writer, O'Connor says, you don't need a wide variety of experiences: "The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can't make something out of a little experience, you probably won't be able to make it out of a lot. The writer's business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it." Like Wharton, O'Connor emphasizes the importance of contemplating or brooding upon experience.

Flannery-O'Connor 1947.jpg Both Jane Austen and Flannery O'Connor led quiet lives. Neither ever married. Both died young. Unlike Austen, however, O'Connor sometimes chose to write about bizarre characters and violent situations that lay far outside her personal experience. These two authors chose different paths, but both created enduring works of fiction.

Henry James agrees a good writer can "make something out of a little experience." In "The Art of Fiction," James describes experience as a "huge spider-web" that can catch "every air-borne particle in its tissue." Like a spider web, an imaginative mind "takes to itself the faintest hints of life." A true writer can convert those hints into compelling fiction.

To illustrate his point, James describes an unnamed English novelist who wrote a highly praised tale about young French Protestants. When, people asked her, had she observed her subjects closely enough to be able to portray them so realistically? The novelist told James she'd simply passed an open door in Paris and glimpsed some young French Protestants sitting around a table. "The glimpse made a picture," James says. "It lasted only a moment, but that moment was an experience." Writers don't need much actual experience, not if they have active, fertile minds. The crucial thing, James says, is to "try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost!"

Henry James.jpg"Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost"--has better advice ever been offered to writers? Some people can pass through all sorts of experiences without gaining significant insights into them, or having much to say about them. Other people can grasp at "the faintest hints of life" and use them to create characters and situations that go far beyond their own experiences.

Write what you know? Sure. But if your talents and interests lead you in other directions, you can also write what you guess, what you imagine, what you conclude after careful thought, what you infer from the inevitably limited opportunities for experience any single human life supplies.

If you want to write a war novel but have never been to war, go ahead. Stephen Crane did that, and The Red Badge of Courage has given millions of readers insights into what it feels like to be locked in a battle they can neither control nor understand. Take what you know of fear, of desperation, of honor, and infuse it into a situation you've never directly experienced. If you've observed closely enough, if you've brooded long enough, if you've analyzed deeply enough and imagined fiercely enough, you might just have something.

(One final note--when this post appears, I'll be at Bouchercon. I'll have access to my husband's laptop, but I hate laptops. It takes me many minutes to peck out a single sentence, and I utter many unpleasant words while I'm doing it. I'll try, but I may not do a good job of replying to comments on Saturday. But I'll reply to every one once I get home on Sunday.)