Tuesday, November 26, 2013


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.




Barry Knister said...

I am happy to see someone taking issue with the bromide about writing what you know. Gore Vidal dismissed it as well. He said, "Write about what you don't know. That way, you'll be forced to learn something." Good advice. But I don't think it prevents you from writing about Toronto Mayor Ford--it's not possible anyone outside a locked psychiatric ward can "know" him.

Vicki Delany said...

Sadly, Barry, no one would ever believe it if I wrote about the likes of Rob Ford.

Melodie Campbell said...

On the contrary. You are a very interesting person, Vicki! And a great post.

John McFetridge said...

I always figured write what you know was more about what you knew emotionally - stuff like fear and regret and how a marriage fails. Because, yeah, you can just look up the other stuff.

Oh, and a story about what's going on in Toronto right now might read like an episode of The Sopranos if we were willing to look into it enough...

Gloria Ferris Mystery Writer said...

Vicki, I vote you DO write a mystery about Rob Ford at City Hall. The possibilities are endless. Now that I think of it, it should be an anthology, and we can all contribute!

RJ Harlick said...

Maybe we create characters from other walks of life in settings where we don't live, but we authors often incorporate our own experiences, snipits from our past, characters that bear a striking resemblance to family or friends into the unfolding story lines. So I'd say we use a mix of what we know and what we've learned in our creative process.

Louis Shalako said...

If I wrote about only what I knew, it would be a very boring, even depressing little book.

Vicki Delany said...

Great idea, Gloria. Perhaps to avoid legal difficulties we could disguise the main character. Bob Toyota?

Lynda Simmons said...

I like to write about what scares the crap out of me because chances are, a lot of other people are equally scared. Cheers.

Jayne said...

Good points, Vicki. I am especially glad to see I'm not the only writer who thinks "I'm not an interesting person," because when friends visit Calgary, I tend to show them not around my own (small, cluttered) home but the funky building where my characters live, and the place they fell in the river that time, and the spot where the knife-wielding felon is going to lurk in wait for them in some future writing....

Donis Casey said...

I think it was Janet Evanovich who said "write what you know, and if you don't know, find out."