by Tracy Kiely
Ah…the age old bit of advice to writers; write what you know. We’ve all heard those words uttered by illustrious writers as they stand before a podium addressing a packed auditorium as they detail their tricks of the trade. Invariably, this advice is followed by a low murmur of agreement from the audience and plenty of knowledgeable head bobbing.
All writers – all successful writers, that is – apply this sound advice to their own writing and never stray outside their own sphere of knowledge. Just look at J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Charlene Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series, and the complete works of William Shakespeare.
(And for those of you who are now angrily sputtering that it was impossible for William Shakespeare to have written those plays as he wasn’t a trained playwright and never went to University, please take this opportunity to firmly flick yourself on your forehead.)
Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t some merit to the advice. When you write what you know, there is an authenticity to your prose. If your setting is a real place and you’ve never been there before, you must research it or you will get angry emails from readers. I skirted this one a bit for my first novel, Murder at Longbourn. I set it in Cape Cod, a place I love and visit often. However, I intentionally set it in a nameless town of my own imagination so I wouldn’t have to worry about details like whether you can make a left on Main Street after 7 pm. I wanted to write a mystery, not a travel guide.
Characters are also obviously better when they seem “real.” By carefully observing those around you, you can create some really solid characters. Characters that make you feel, make you care, and in some cases, characters that make you giggle with glee when they finally get what’s coming to them. For instance, let’s say you know a person that really gets under your skin. As in nails on a chalkboard, air-horn in your face, desire to punch their lights out, under your skin. By taking the qualities that annoy you so much and applying them to a fictional character, you will have written what you know and, most likely, in a believable way. Then you kill off this character, and go and enjoy a well-deserved cup of tea.
The only problem with this is that sometimes the people who annoy us the most are the same ones who are most likely to show up at our table for major holidays. We all have a relative (or two) that were our mothers one day to quietly take us aside and admit to a brief indiscretion with the milkman, rather than recoil in disgust, we’d hug her with joy. (By the way – do milkmen even exist anymore? Where did they all go?) However, were we to actually put these annoying souls into our books, we’d get busted. And most likely right in the middle of one of those holiday dinners that are just around the corner.
(Okay, I’m totally interrupting myself here, but this is funny. Every year, we host Thanksgiving at the Cape for my husband’s family. Every year, I attempt to seat twenty-eight people of varying temperaments in a manner that ensures as little friction as possible. I usually fail, and am always left in awe at those poor souls who arrange the seating charts for United Nations’ Dinners. Anyway, a few years ago our dog, Cormac, was suffering from epileptic seizures. Our vet, who is also a close friend, gave me a syringe filled with Valium to use on him should one happen. Now, Cormac was a big dog, and so was the syringe. Honestly, it was cartoon-like huge. It looked like something Fred Flintstone might use on Dino. Anyway, Cormac was fine, and we didn’t need to use it. But I was sooooo tempted to inject the turkey with the Valium to ensure that we all had a peaceful, drama-free dinner regardless of the damn seating arrangements.)
Which brings me to my point about writing what you know. Granted, it's a point I’ve proposed before, but damn it I’m going to do it again. Remember Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, where the two men traded murders? Instead of trading murders, I propose we create a writer’s database of Really Annoying People. It won’t be limited to relatives; co-workers, bosses, ex-loves are all eligible. This way we can write believable characters and still sit down for holiday dinners without fear of drama and tears.
Well, drama and tears about being realistically portrayed in a book. I can’t promise anything about the rest. Unless you happen to have a large syringe of Valium handy.