Thursday, December 6, 2012

What do I know?

By Gayle Carline

The first piece of advice given to any writer is to write what you know. Actually, the first piece of advice is don’t quit your day job, but that makes a depressing post and tis is the season to be jolly.

When I decided I wanted to write a novel, I took that write what you know business to heart. I wrote about a Midwestern girl who jumps in her car and travels to the West Coast, something that I had done. The problem was I didn’t know how to write a novel. To my great surprise, the characters all revolted, and the girl’s car broke down in Amarillo.

What the hell did I know about Amarillo? I’ve been there once, long enough to visit the American Quarter Horse Museum, and eat at Cracker Barrel.

That (really sucky) novel sleeps peacefully on my external hard drive, where I use it for spare parts.

After writing what I knew turned out so abysmally, I threw caution to the wind and tried writing what I wanted to know: a mystery. Much like Amarillo, what the hell did I know about writing a mystery story?

Not much. But I knew how to read and enjoy them. I knew what to expect when I watched them on TV. I had to have a crime, and a plucky character who would poke around in all of the corners, looking for the solution.

As far as writing what I knew, I used a few familiar things to help me. For example, I made my private investigator, Peri, a former housecleaner. I like a clean house, and know how to do it. Having that little background story gave me a bond to her. I like dirty martinis, so I made that her signature drink.

I also know my hometown of Placentia, California. It’s a small town squished between other towns. I know its streets, its neighborhoods, and its feel. I know how it tastes and smells. Setting a mystery there meant I didn’t have to create someplace else.

I now had a protagonist and a location that I knew.

As for the mystery part, well… how does a bland little Midwestern gal inject suspense and thrills that she’s never experienced?

In the end, I used two of my own hobbies: puzzle solving and communicating with my husband. Mysteries are a lot like puzzles. There are pieces that you must gather, data you must analyze and slip into the correct slot. This translates to clues, alibis, and information that is collected by the protagonist and the reader in order to come to the “AHA” moment.

As far as my husband is concerned, I am married to possibly the most laconic man on the planet. He also possesses a soft, deep voice, which is sometimes inaudible to me due to some hearing loss at the lower registers (yes, too many concerts in my youth). If I want to know anything, I can either chase him down and hound him until he speaks clearly, or just follow the clues he leaves behind.

I remember one day, when we were supposed to meet friends for lunch. It was in the days before cell phones and there was a mix-up at the restaurants, and we were trying to figure out whether Dale would be able to find us. I mentioned that he had taken clean clothes with him that morning, so he was probably changing at the tennis club, making it useless to leave a message on the home phone.

One of the women looked at me, agog. “Don’t you two ever talk?”

Well, not that much. I make assumptions about where he’s gone, what he’s doing, and what my next move should be, if any. Maybe I am a private investigator. A very private one.

I’ve now written three Peri mysteries (and one short), and a lot of times I feel like I’m in the weeds and don’t know why I’m not writing what I know. That’s when I remember my horrible first novel, and I go do a little research until I can move forward.

I hope this gives other writers the encouragement to take what you do know, write it into what you don’t, and stop stressing about the rest. It’s fiction, people. You don’t have to get it right. You just have to get it believable.

And if readers think that I make writing sound like it’s as unknown as most of life in general, well, it’s true. We don’t just want to tell you a story. We want to lead you through an experience.

If we knew where we were going, it wouldn’t be half as much fun.


  1. All (I hope) mystery writers are writing a little of what we don't know; after all, we've never actually murdered anyone. You're right about not having to be 100% correct, it is fiction so as long as it makes sense and entertains, it's fine. I love the Peri series - keep writing what you don't know.

  2. Just as comedians take a little kernel of truth and twist it or exaggerate it until it's funny, writers take a little of what we know and twist it until it's entertaining. But most of us also do the necessary research to get the law enforcement details right.

    The one time I set a story in an environment that I knew well (the pharmaceutical industry), I ended up with The Suicide Effect, which is a fine story, but maybe not a compelling title. Another time, I went way out of my comfort zone and wrote a futuristic thriller set in Washington, DC, and I ended up with The Gauntlet Assassin, which some readers say is my best work. So I'm getting ready to write another story about something I don't know.

  3. I think you need a little of both. As you said, I know what makes a good mystery. I know some locations and history better than others. Take that, pair it up with some research, and you can craft a mighty fine story. After all, I want to learn something during the process too - so where's the excitement in writing only what I know?

  4. I write about familiar locations, but use a fictional town as a base. Other than that, it's all research for me. Prisons, Human Remains Detection Dogs, Organ Donation, Law Enforcement, FBI, and medical information were all research folders in my last books. The unique folders on my desk at the moment include Depression, Exit Counseling, Moneterrey Mexico, Santeria, Cajun, Swam Stuff and Drug Cartels. Nothing I'm intimately familiar with, I assure you.

    When I ask an expert about the details of a potential situation, I always ask them not whether or not it's probable, but whether or not it's possible. As you said, "It's fiction, people."

    Fun post!

  5. Thanks for another useful and fun post, Gayle! I always enjoy your musings and insights, and most of all your humorous style!

  6. Okay, Gayle, what does Placentia taste like?

  7. It's funny. When I was a kid, teachers yelled at me a lot (constantly) because I always seemed to be in my own little world--and they were right: I was. My world was far more interesting, because I could go wherever I wanted, and whatever I didn't know or understand, I could make up.

    Why am I telling you this? Because I honestly believe that was what launched my writing career. It was where I learned to trust my imagination. I don't write about what I know. I never have. I go wherever my inspiration takes me. That's where the magic happens. I can always research what I don't know--the good stuff comes from someplace else. It sounds like you did the same, Gayle, and it's served you well.

  8. This week, Marlyn, it tastes like tamales!

  9. HI Gayle, I like to modify the adage just a bit and make it "write what you want to know." I like that version much more and it gives me free reign to write about all sorts of things I once knew nothing about...but now know enough to be dangerous. Fun post!

  10. Wonderful post, Gayle! It's practical and spunky. And I bet it drinks dirty martinis. --Alicia Bien


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