Friday, January 22, 2016

Guest author Lesley A. Diehl: Writing What You Know: Five Pitfalls to Avoid

Lesley A Diehl 
Author of cozy mysteries
featuring sassy country
gals who enjoy snooping
The first piece of advice I was given as a novice mystery writer was to write what I knew. I suppose that’s good literary advice in general regardless of the genre you write. How persuasive can your writing be when constructing a romance about nineteenth century Spain if you don’t know the period, the country or the dress and customs of the people? Similarly, I would never attempt to write other than a cozy mystery or perhaps a traditional mystery. Police procedurals require some knowledge of police work, whether it’s information you’ve gotten through direct experience or through reading extensively, interviewing police authorities or perhaps you were an police officer yourself or are close with someone who is.

However, writing a story based upon your own work background or even a hobby you’re familiar with doesn’t guarantee you a book or short story your reader will find enticing. There are some problems with writing what you know. I’ve identified five of them.

1. There is no distance between you and elements in your story.

I was a retired college professor, so I decided to be safe in my first mystery manuscript. I wrote about a college professor who helped local authorities solve murders, especially those occurring on the college campus. Aside from my very real problem of still writing like an academic rather than a mystery author, I was so close to my subject matter than it sounded as if I had an ax to grind. Well, I did, of course, but all those juicy little details about academe came across not as texture in my story, but as insults I had not yet gotten beyond.  I needed to remind myself I was writing fiction, not true life adventures of a wronged professor.

I recently read a manuscript written by someone with a medical background. It was filled with details that should have given a reader insight into the profession. Instead it read like a diatribe against certain aspects of the profession. The story was lost.

How to get beyond this? Well, it took me almost ten years until I came to understand my story should not be mine, but my protagonist’s story. The juicy details now became embellishments in her life, not mine.

2. You know too much.

You have an extensive background in some profession or hobby or have researched an aspect of your protagonist’s life that you find interesting, and, by golly, you’re going to put all of this into your story. You believe it provides the detail necessary to flesh out the life of your protagonist, or so you say. But your reader yawns halfway through your account of how to make Origami Christmas decorations and decides he/she doesn’t have the time for a protagonist that thinks crafting is as important as her love life or solving her best friend’s murder. You’re just showing off.

There’s a delicate balance between providing enough detail to make a scene feel real and creating nausea in your reader by over burdening her with particulars that lead to boredom. A good critique group or a critique partner may help you establish this balance.

3. You read and read and read.

You know you want to include information about your protagonist’s life that you do not have knowledge about. You do this because you want your reader to understand that your protagonist has a multifaceted life. She likes camping, backpacking to be exact, but you are afraid of bugs, so you use the internet to find out all you can on backpacking. And you hope your reader will not discover how little experience you have. You’ll be found out, if not by gaping holes in the breadth and depth of your camping research, but by the rather tiresome tone you use to describe your heroine’s recent camping trip.

It’s fine to bolster your understanding of some area with research, but, if you limit it to what you read and not what you experience, your writing will suffer for your lack of intimacy with the subject matter. I find that experience in the form of tours, interviews or partaking in some event can be fun for the author and, by extension, that fun finds its way into your writing. I’ve done things like touring numerous microbreweries to find out about the process of brewing, taking an airboat ride, or, my favorite, shopping, shopping, shopping yard sales, consignment shops, secondhand stores and junk yards. The feel of places where your protagonist travels or lives makes your story come to life.

So, use a lot of bug spray or choose another activity for your protagonist.

4. You learn about something no one else is interested in.

When I decided I need to create a protagonist with a career in some field other than the ones often found in cozies, e.g., quilt shops, catering services, crafts, bookshop owners, I thought about occupations that were unusual for a woman. The two that came to mind were taxidermist and microbrewer. The first seemed exotic, to say the least, but I knew I’d have to learn firsthand about the business, and the thought of sinking my arms elbow deep in squirrel entrails did not appeal. I’m sure it wouldn’t have appealed to readers either. I chose microbrewer for my protagonist’s work and spent many happy hours in breweries talking with brew masters, sampling their wares (that was fun) and learning directly about making beer. I couldn’t brew a batch myself, but I have a better appreciation for the art than before I did my research, and I think it shows up in my mysteries set in a brew barn in Upstate New York.

I can’t tell you what topic would send your work off track, but perhaps asking friends and relatives, even strangers if they’d be interested in reading a mystery about a woman who worked in a factory that made peanut butter might give you some insight. If you put her in a mobile home and made someone in the factory responsible for intentionally contaminating the product, you might have a winner, but it’s a stretch. Avoiding this pitfall might be where common sense prevails.

5. You feel trapped by your boring life.

Well, let’s face it. Most of us have pretty mundane lives. If you are a writer, you are a storyteller, and the story you tell will not be about your life, the vocation you chose or even events you have experienced. To make a story sing, you will select feelings, perspectives, attitudes, and judgments about people and events in your life. Then, as a good story teller, you embellish what you know to create a world you never lived in but one you fashioned out of the important aspects (anguish, joy, loss, love, anger) of the one you did experience.

I had a truly crazy family, but I’d never write that story. I mean, I became a psychologist, and that should say enough about my family. Instead, I have chosen to take an aunt I was fond of and make her bigger than life. The love and admiration I had for this woman helped me create a character she would never recognize as herself, but I think I have distilled the essence of her flamboyant nature into a person who dominates the story. You can make a story from the central kernel of people you know.

How does a writer use a boring life and create memorable characters and stories? Your life may be boring, but you are a writer because you have an imagination. Few of us want to write about our own lives. Most of us are interested in writing a story.

The key to avoiding all these pitfalls is your own imagination, fashioned from your own experience, of course, but honed into a writer’s imagination by writing, reading and talking with other writers. And, oh yes, getting out of your own way so you can write.

Have you experienced these difficulties in writing what you know? Are there other pitfalls you’ve run into in your own writing or that of others?



Lesley A. Diehl said...

Thanks, Lianne, for having me as a guest blogger. It's always a delight to be here and to share my thoughts with writers and readers.

Unknown said...

Written with the knowledge of an experienced psychologist. Great blog.

JL Greger
author of thrillers
In I SAW YOU IN A BEIRUT, a woman's memories are the key to the identification and rescue of a nuclear scientist from Iran.

Elaine Faber said...

Excellent thoughts and good advice. Thanks for sharing.

Nancy LiPetri said...

Great points!

Ellen Byron said...

Great post,Lesley. I believe in the flip of the saying: "Know about what you write."

Patricia Gligor's Writers Forum said...

Great post, Lesley!
I smiled as I read it, thinking about all the times people have said to me things like "Wow. That happened to you? You should write about it," or "That person did that to you? What a great character for a book." Not!

Like most people, I've gone through some things in my life and dealt with some, well, let's call them "difficult" people, but I don't use any of that in my books. At least, not "as is." I take bits and pieces from my life, stories I've heard and people I've known, to create my stories and the characters who live them. And, of course, there are some life events and some people I prefer to forget. I wouldn't even WANT to write about them. LOL

Nancy J. Cohen said...

I was once told that I didn't have enough life experience to write a novel. That person was wrong. So I interpret "Write What You Know" to mean we should write from the heart and use our emotions in our novels. You can research a profession, but you can't research the lonely feeling you get when you don't belong to a certain crowd, or the fright you had one night when your burglar alarm went off. Those experiences WE KNOW because we've felt them.

Lesley A. Diehl said...

All excellent points especially when we consider that if we didn't put our heart and passion in our work, it would be too cold to attract readers. My students often said I seemed so emotional about what I taught, and I always replied that I wouldn't waste my time teaching it if it didn't matter to me both intellectually and emotionally.

Liane Spicer said...

Welcome back, Lesley! Very profound insights with which I fully concur.

Lesley A. Diehl said...

I think that when a mystery writer begins the first manuscript, it's always tempting to insert stuff from the author's own life. Sometimes it helps bring texture and passion to the work, but it sometimes can be distracting, but beware the ax to grind possibility. And, boy, if you've spent most of your career in a position where you have responsibibility but no power to enact change, you've got an agenda!

Elaine L. Orr said...

Excellent article on the pitfalls of writing what you know. I've put down a lot of books because I don't care how many brands of coffee there are in an eatery or types of pottery in a New Mexico shop. Also a good discussion of distinguishing between the protagonist and the writer when the writer knows a lot about a subject.

Charles Gramlich said...

Very good advice.

Marilyn Levinson said...

I enjoyed this post a lot. I think elements of our own lives tend to insert themselves in our first few books. Now I love writing about characters that are very different from me. My most recent sleuth had spiky purple hair—something you'd never catch me having—until her new job required her to tone down her appearance.

James R. Callan said...

Nice post, Lesley. You could change the basic "write what you know" to "write what you can find out about." I know about mathematics. Now, how does that grab you? Boring, huh? (At least for a novel.) But, if I just listen to what's going on around me, I have plenty of great novel ideas. Thanks for another good post, Lesley.

Unknown said...

Very good points and advice here, Lesley. I write mainly non-fiction -- essays and memoir -- so I do have to write what I know and have done. In fiction, however, like the novel I've just finished, it's filled with what I know and what I've done. I'll use your list in hopes I won't bore any readers!

Lesley A. Diehl said...

In the first draft of one of my early books,an agent told me, "This is boring. Psychologists are boring." He was both right and wrong. Too much of me as a trained psychologist found its way into my book and not enough of my protagonist psychologist, who was as serious about her work as I was, but she had sass, was funny and impulsive to a fault. She was an interesting psychologist. Math can be interesting, too, but I suspect if your protagonist is a math professor, he has to have something else going for him, like he's secretly a werewolf or a super hero or a superhero who's a werewolf or...

authorlindathorne said...

My book started off with too much of me and my experiences. When I found myself trying to shove in details the reader didn't need to know only because they were things that happened to me, I came to a big realization. Yes, it does help to write about things you are an expert at because you'll get the details straight with little effort. It's important to not step over that line of sharing too much just because you "know it all" on the subject. It's almost like learning to dance. After you write for long enough, I think most authors "get the feel" of how to take advantage of writing what they know without falling into the pitfalls of using too much of what they know. It sort of came to me after a period of writing too much of what I knew best.