What was the most useless, destructive thing you ever learned in writing class or in a writing craft book?
By Vicki Delany
I’m going to answer last week’s question rather than this weeks. Why? Because I can.
Write what you know.
Okay, this is what I knew at the time I began writing crime fiction.
If John is dead
John was stabbed
IF Mary is holding a knife
THEN Mary killed John
Else someone else stabbed John
JOHN died by natural causes
John is alive
Exciting, eh. What I knew was several different computer languages and how to tell a computer what I wanted it to do. I knew how to get to downtown Toronto from the outlying areas on the GO train.
But I didn't want to write books about computer programmers or about people who work in downtown Toronto. (Although a book about a computer programmer working at Toronto city hall these days might be might appealing. Would it be a comedy or a tragedy?)
How many popular thriller or mystery books do you know starring an accountant, a stay-at-home mother with two toddlers, an elementary school teacher? (Other than cozies, which do use the advice Write What You Know effectively e.g. Crafting or shop-owner mysteries, and even they are usually set in some idyllic town bearing no resemblance to where real people live). Not many.
Because most of us, including me, might lead happy, satisfying lives full of love and joy, but that is not the stuff of which good crime novels are made.
Write what you WANT to know. Want to write about cops? Learn about the job of a police officer? Want to write a historical novel? Use research and imagination. Want to write about pirates on the high seas? You can either cruise the seas hoping to be attacked by pirates, or read up on it.
After all, if you write what you know, essentially you’re writing about YOU. And I don’t think I’m a particularly interesting person.
In A COLD WHITE SUN, one of the POV characters is an ex-soldier suffering PTSD from his experiences in Afghanistan. And he’s a man, to boot. Do I know anything about that? Nope, but I can use what little knowledge I do have from reading to try to put myself into his head.
In my work in progress a POV character has just been released from prison after serving 22 years for a crime he didn’t commit. A difficult head space to put myself in. But I’m trying, because I know I don’t have to write what I know.
All I have to use are READING, RESEARCH, IMAGINATION.