Yes, the title is correct. Rather than “write what you know,” I believe you should ”know what you write.”
I’m a native New Yorker, transplanted to the West Coast (and now in New England.) In my early writing classes I was told, “write what you know.” What did that mean? I couldn’t write about Alabama or Vancouver because I wasn’t from there?
When I was sixteen, I was strolling through Manhattan, minding my own business. I came across a group of tourists looking up and pointing, shooting pictures at something in the sky. What was it? I looked up and realized they were photographing a tall building. Big deal. So I walked to the building in question and saw a plaque that read Empire State Building. Aha. This was the famous Empire State Building.
I lived in NYC but didn’t even appreciate what was around me. On the other hand, when I moved to San Diego, I scouted out every attraction, neighborhood, restaurant, park and beach within the first two months. I knew San Diego better than San Diegans and often surprised them with my knowledge. My point is that growing up in or living in a place is not necessarily “knowing” a place.
In other blogs I talked about the importance of research. Here is a perfect place for it. You don’t need to set a story in the place you grew up in (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) You can set a story anywhere you like, but, and I repeat, but, you must visit that place to make it authentic.
An example from my upcoming book, Deadly Provenance: “They drove on the Avenue de la Grande Armée, right up to and around the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Elyseés to the Place de la Concorde with the tall obelisk at its center. Henri then turned left into a steady stream of traffic on the Rue de Rivoli, made a dizzying series of rights and lefts and wound up on a narrow alley way called Rue des Pretres-Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, which Maggie did not even attempt to pronounce. He pulled the Peugeot onto the sidewalk in front of a tiny building with glass front: Le Relais du Louvre, their hotel.”
I’ve never lived in Paris, but I have visited a number of times. Can you tell?
If you’re writing about a fictional town, you can have fictional streets and neighborhoods, fictional bars and fictional buildings. But if you’re writing about a real city, you need to make it authentic, by visiting. Maps on the Internet can help, but places change, restaurants close, old houses are torn down and replaced by condos. You must see it first-hand. This is especially important if you want to appeal to readers who actually live there. They will call you on your mistakes.
A dilemma I encountered when writing about Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, was how did it look back then? First of all it was called Washington City, an important note that would have bollixed up everything, had I gotten it wrong. Since I couldn’t transport myself back to Washington City in 1860 (darn), I lucked out when I chanced upon a book called “A Guide to Civil War Washington.” Thank you author, Stephen M. Forman! In this little gem were maps of the different areas in the District, including street names and famous attractions like Ford’s Theatre. Without this book, I would have had to research maps of the time and spent lots of hours at the Library of Congress, if I could get special permission. Whew.
One caveat about the benefit of actually living in the place you’re writing about is that you will know the “locals” better. Their habits, peculiarities, popular night spots, and idiosyncrasies of speech. But this is a post for another time.
For now, “write what you know” is not bad advice. “Know what you write” might be better.
I admit it. I’m an animal person. I love them all but am partial to dogs and have had many and still do. I’ve read many “animal” books and find them endearing. Today’s blog, though, is not about writing animal stories, but about integrating animals into your novels to give your humans depth, compassion and vulnerability.
Comic relief is one reason writers insert animals into their stories. I recently watched (again) Lonesome Dove on television and laughed (again) at the scenes of the two pigs following the wagon out of Lonesome Dove to embark on a journey north. The journey would be fraught with drama and trauma, and the pigs added a light aspect to ease the tension. But they actually did more than that.
These two sweet little pink creatures gave us insight into one of the main characters of Lonesome Dove, Augustus McCrae. Sure, he hollered at them, kicked dirt at them, spit at them, but he also smiled at them, enjoyed their antics and encouraged them to join the entourage to Montana. What did that say about Gus, a former Texas Ranger who would hang an old friend for breaking the law? He had a definite soft side.
Characters that have a seriously dark job, like a cop or detective, need to have a way to show their human side. Relationships with the opposite sex, kids and family, even friends and colleagues can work. But so can animals. Take my NYC homicide detective, Frank Mead, in The Triangle Murders. In a dialogue, with his sergeant, Mead explains how he came to own a blue and gold, extremely noisy killer macaw named Dexter.
“What’s with the bird?” Jefferies said.
“Dumb move.” Frank sighed.
“Brought my car into a garage out in Canarsie. The bird was in the back of the shop squawking up a storm. Real nasty place, they didn’t give a shit about him. He was covered in grease. So I took him. Fifty bucks. They sold him just like that. I figured I’d clean him up and give him away, to some good home or something.” His face reddened.
“Kinda got used to the company. He’s incredibly smart, talks and, well, never mind. Stupid ass bird.”
Mead, a hard-boiled homicide cop, has a gruesome murder to solve, a dead wife always on his mind, an estranged daughter he feels guilty about. And yet he saves this kooky parrot. Would you have expected that of him? Or are you surprised?
Animals have played similar roles in mysteries for decades. Think Raymond Chandler’s The Thin Man. I can never forget the first movie and my introduction to Myrna Loy as the character, Nora Charles. Picture the scene: Nick Charles is in a nightclub bar being asked by a young woman to take a case, when Nora bursts in carrying Christmas packages and trying to hold onto Asta, her mischievous terrier, by the lead. Asta barrels into the room and Nora winds up face down on the floor, packages strewn everywhere. Unfazed, she gets up, brushes herself off and carries on.
Her dog was the perfect device to show us Nora’s personality. And it was dead-on. Nora is generally unfazed by embarrassing moments like these. But how would you know that without tedious narrative? By using Asta.
Other well-known authors use animals in similar ways. In Robert Parker’s Spenser books, you meet his dog, Pearl, and can picture her lying on the floor on her back with four feet in the air. How many of us are familiar with that pose? She’s entirely comfortable, not fearful or concerned in this position about any danger. What does that say about Spenser and his relationship with Pearl and the environment he provides for her? Safe, sheltered and most probably well-loved.
Elizabeth George, another dog person, has inserted a Longhaired Dachshund, Peach, into her stories. How does she integrate Peach with her characters to give them depth and breadth of human qualities. Yes, this is a quiz.
I know I will personally continue to use animals in my books. I encourage you to consider doing the same. They can add a sympathetic, sensitive and loving element to your humans . . . in ways other humans simply can’t.
Time Exposure is a mystery that takes place during the Civil War. I wanted readers to abandon the present and immerse themselves in those brutal, tumultuous years of the mid-nineteenth century. Scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Well, I wasn’t there, so how could I paint a picture of that time period, accurately, vividly, and with painstaking detail?
Research, of course, but research using primary sources whenever possible. What does that mean? There are many books written about the Civil War. About the battles, about the people, about the politics — the operative word being “about.” These sources are written today by historians looking back in time. I wanted to go back there myself. How?
Primary sources are the ones that deliver the information firsthand. Photographs are an excellent way to learn about the past. In my case, tens of thousands of Civil War photographs are available, yes, through books and online, but also at the Library of Congress, where there are drawers upon drawers filled with folders of photos taken back then. The originals, if you can imagine!
Other primary sources of an historic period are letters or journals. Using the Civil War as an example, there are books of letters to and from soldiers and their loved ones. If you use credible authors, ie: Ken Burns, you can be sure these are the true words of the people of the time. If you are really lucky, you may be able to track down a diary written from the time period. A friend of mine’s ancestor was a soldier in the War and he passed down some interesting paraphernalia (no journal, unfortunately.)
Very important primary sources are books written by someone of the time period. An example, which helped me shape my scene at the Union Hotel Hospital, was a precious thin book called Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott. Louisa May was actually a minor character in my book. If you ever wondered what it would be like to volunteer as a nurse in a hospital during the Civil War, listen to Louisa May:
“My three days experience had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation (I had to look this one up!) of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, two typhoids opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patients, hopping, lying and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new ‘nuss,’ who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn’t.”
From this one simple paragraph, I learned about the hospital, the patients, the illnesses and Louisa May’s (and other nurses’?) attitude toward them all.
In addition to Louisa May Alcott’s writings, I examined photographs, I read letters, poems and the words of songs written during the time. As I kept reading, I got a feel for the rhythm of speech of the period. I learned some of the basics: what the people of the time ate, drank, smoked, what they wore, how they amused themselves when they weren’t killing each other on the field, what their sex lives were like (there are some bawdy postcards out there!) Essentially, I learned how they lived and, sadly, how they died.
Bottom line: If you write historical stories, (or even modern stories about places you’re not familiar with,) what you don’t know can hurt you. The best way to find out what things were really like, is to do your research through the eyes of those who lived it.
There are no shortcuts. Ideas welcome.
Should You Hire a Pro?
A writer friend asked me whether it was really a good idea to pay a professional editor to read her manuscript. My immediate response was yes, but the question made me pause and reflect on my personal experiences.
I have had all six of my novels (number six coming this summer!) edited by pros. Here are my thoughts.
There is huge value to editors who “copy” edit, that is, they read for spelling, grammar, syntax, etc. You always miss something: a comma where it doesn’t belong, the incorrect use of a semicolon. In terms of the broader picture: the plot, characters, structure, tension, conflict, on and on, the pro can be very helpful. . . or not.
In The Triangle Murders, the professional editor I hired was so intrigued with the historic story that her suggestions would have made me totally change the book. It would have become a historic mystery rather than a historic mystery that is solved today with modern technology. She had her own vision for the book. But who was writing this?
The editor I hired for my Civil War book, however, was extremely helpful. He gave me an idea for a dynamite ending that I hadn’t even considered. It totally changed the story for the better.
Before you consider hiring a pro, however, do your own self-editing. Believe it or not, there is a lot you can do to improve your writing before it gets the going-over by someone else. Some suggestions:
Edit in small sections at a time. If possible, reread the section before and then edit the current 5 to 10 pages.
Also, read aloud (or to your dog or cat.) I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. You’d be surprised what you hear that you didn’t think you wrote. Dialogue may sound stilted, tension weak, setting inappropriate. Often I will come away from my reading out loud thinking, ugh, did I write that?
Some things to look for when you’re self-editing:
- Do you want to turn the page?
- Did you stumble over awkward phrases or clunky words when you read aloud?
- Were you confused by your own plot twists?
- Did punctuation mess up your reading?
- Were your characters boring, too flawed (yes, that’s possible) or totally unbelievable (unless you write Bourne thrillers)?
- Were there plot inconsistencies ie: a character appeared after she was murdered?
- Were there setting inconsistencies? It was hot as Hades one day, snowing the next?
- Did you get your facts right? Very important if you want authenticity.
You can be your own best editor. But, just to be sure — reread, rewrite, read aloud. And again x 3.
Now hire a professional for the final read.
Your thoughts welcome.
A young friend, beginning her first foray into fiction writing, asked me: “What is conflict in a novel?” I thought I’d take a stab at an answer.
The simplified dictionary definition is: “A conflict is a struggle or an opposition.”Conflict comes from the Latin word for “striking,” but it isn’t always violent. Conflict can arise from opposing ideas. If your character is torn between two different desires, say, marrying a woman who lives in Boston, but dying to take a job offer in Saskatoon (where is that, anyway?) he’s conflicted.
Conflict is key to your characters’ relationships. If everyone gets along beautifully and there are no differences of opinions, arguments, debates, fisticuffs . . . no screaming, pulling hair, beating up or murdering someone, well, there’s not much conflict. And not much interest.
Conflict can occur within a person’s mind. This is the most interesting of conflicts and defines the character’s character, if you will. When a character confronts another character, there is drama. When a character confronts his/her own self, there is drama plus. Now, the stage is set for future interactions with everyone he/she meets.
In The Triangle Murders, my protagonist, Frank Mead is overwhelmingly conflicted about his relationship with his daughter, whom he feels he has abandoned after his wife’s suicide. The daughter feels similarly. However, circumstances bring the two of them together, creating not only conflict, but often tension. There is great strain between them and the reader must wonder if it will ever be resolved.
Emotions play a large role in portraying a character’s conflict. If a character keeps his emotions hidden, any conflicts he faces may stretch these hidden emotions to a breaking point. As a reader we need to know what’s happening in his head – how this conflict is affecting him. We also need to see how it manifests itself in his behavior. Does serious money problems cause him to drink more, beat his wife and kids, or retreat further into himself? How your character handles conflict makes him unique . . . or not. Unique is better, by the way.
Conflict between characters can take many forms. It can be job-related, school- related, socially-related, sexually-related, family-related, or other (everything else) -related. Often all. However, too many conflicts in too many places can cause the reader to get worn out. Give your character, even a cranky one, at least one amiable relationships, even if it’s with another cranky character, please, or we won’t like him very much.
I like to find new ways to help my characters resolve their conflicts. For instance, in Frank’s case above, he enlists his daughter’s help to solve an ancient murder. They form a tentative truce to accomplish this, which may, or may not, last into another book.
My advice is to maximize the use of conflict in your story. It is a great tool to keep readers turning the page.
As always, I welcome your feedback.
Chapter endings are as important as beginnings. Read the endings of your chapters. Go ahead. Are they riveting? Are you anxious to turn the page? Will your readers be? Take a closer look at the ho hum ones and begin to focus on endings that would compel a reader to keep going.
I skimmed through some books to see how those authors ended their chapters. Here’s one from Deception Point by Dan Brown. “Rachel felt weightless for an instant, hovering over the multimillion-pound block of ice. Then they were riding the iceberg down – plummeting into the frigid sea.” The reader is not likely to put the book down at this point, at least until they find out what happened to Rachel and her friend. Brown could have ended with something like: “Rachel stood motionless on the block of ice and prayed the block wouldn’t fall into the sea.” Nah.
Here’s another. “Emergency Room. Code Blue. Susan ran for the elevator.” This is from Chelsea Cain’s The Night Season. What if Cain had stopped at Code Blue? Would it have the same impact as her running for the elevator?
I believe this idea of compelling endings is not only important for fiction but for non-fiction as well. Take Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: “Sometime that day, or perhaps the day before, he had taken off his uniform, picked up a sack of rice, slipped into the Naoetsu countryside, and vanished.” Vanishing, dying, running, falling, are all great ways to end a chapter on a high, cliffhanger note.
How about this from my mystery, Time Exposure: “As he sank to his knees, he lifted his head to gaze up at the Blackhawk. Captain Geoffrey Farrell smiled down at him. A boot to the head put him out.” Or this from Pure Lies, in the form of dialogue: “Well, you may be nuts and I wouldn’t testify to this in court, but between you, me and the microscope, honey, these signatures were all written by the same person.”
Scene endings can follow this rule to some extent, but it might get tiresome if every scene did. I think you have to let the reader rest once in a while and catch up with the action.
Not all chapter endings must end on an action note either. Many can end with inner conflict or conflict between characters. Gives the chapter tension. What happens between these two people next? Does Anna May leave her husband? Does mom throw Maynard out of the house? Does little Davey start to cry? Is Barbara in danger of being fired, of losing her health insurance, of missing a plane to an important event? If you care about the characters, you will turn the page.
I’d love to hear some chapter endings you think are great . . . or terrible. When we can recognize what works and what doesn’t, our writing benefits in the long-run.