Monday, August 14, 2006

Write What You Don't Know

By Guest Blogger Louise Ure

You know the old maxim, “Write what you know?” I say, “Horseshit.”

There are lots of writers who make it up from the whole cloth. Michael Connelly was never a lawyer driving around in a Lincoln-sized office. John Irving never lost his hand to a caged lion at the circus. And as far as I know, Lee Child never killed anybody.

Hell, Homer was probably a stay-at-home dad, and J. K. Rowling has never done a magic trick in her life.

If I were to write about what I know, it would be a story about advertising agencies, how to make great tacos, and smoking too much. Short tempers in traffic, overweight golden retrievers and killing any plant that isn’t approved by the California Highway Department for planting in the medians.

And who wants to read that?

There are some writers whose histories are so fascinating that just listening in on their lunch orders at Subway would be fodder for a story. Barbara Seranella and her outlaw past. Zoe Sharp and her motorcycle racing. Barry Eisler’s shady CIA history.

Cornelia Read can lift any page from her diary and create a book from it.

And there are other fine writers who have taken the guts of the world they know – journalism, teaching, business – and created a universe where adventures abound. Karen Olson, for example, with her reporter-protagonist Annie Seymour, or Patricia Smiley, who can make even the most innocent business transaction fraught with menace. Elaine Flinn brought murder to the antiques biz in tiny, charming Carmel. Gillian Roberts parlayed her years teaching high school in Philadelphia into a thirteen or fourteen book series, and proved that association with teacher Amanda Pepper could be just as lethal as any day spent with Jessica Fletcher.

If I were to try that, you’d have the story of an Account Director in an ad agency wondering how she was going to motivate the Creative Director to try for one more campaign, since the client put his foot through the last storyboard. Yawn.
If you’re a taxidermist, do you love reading fiction about your field? Or do you avoid it?

I dislike reading about my own world, and I think I’d hate writing about it even more. (I did read two advertising agency mysteries written by former colleagues, and had to struggle to find something nice to say about them. If they got the facts right, the story was boring. If they got them wrong, it just sounded silly.)

In my first book, FORCING AMARYLLIS, I wrote about a jury consultant put in the unenviable position of representing a man she thought might be the person who attacked her sister. And I didn’t know a damn thing about jury consulting.

But that’s where the fun began. I read voraciously, interviewed lawyers who had used jury consultants and analyzed every trial transcript I could get my hands on. I haunted the corridors at the Criminal Courts Building in San Francisco, eavesdropped on lawyers’ conversations after the verdicts were read, and practically memorized entire chapters of “Stack & Sway: The New Science of Jury Consulting.”

But the best research was conducted on a drunken Thursday afternoon with Beth and Idgi, two local jury consultants, over cassoulet and a bottle of good Medoc at Le Central, downtown. They had started out as idealists, wanting to ensure that every man would be guaranteed a jury of his peers. That never again would we see the kind of jury stacking that went on during the trials of anti-war protestors Daniel and Philip Berrigan during the Viet Nam era.

And they are still idealists; even after the smearing their profession took in the O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson trials. It’s not “the best jury money can buy” for these two; it’s “leveling the playing field.” Although we all agreed that the field would not truly be level until the investigative services, the jury consultants and the expert witnesses are equally available to everyone, not just the Robert Blakes of the world.

The stories got better as the afternoon (and the wine) wore on. Stories about the black teenager – more girl than woman – facing an adult murder charge. Stories about the lawyer who had his wife second-guess the jury consultants’ decisions from her seat in the first row. Stories about the case they lost that will never leave them.

The stories were important. And it was so much more fun than writing about advertising.

In the book I just finished, THE FAULT TREE, the protagonist is a blind, female auto mechanic. I am not blind. And while I’m a dab hand at minor car repairs, I also have AAA on speed dial. By the time that research for the book was done, I could do a tune up in thirty minutes with my eyes closed and I’ve now filed my nails into the shape of both regular and Phillips’ head screwdrivers.The book I’m working on now features a twenty-four year old woman who is both a body builder and a compulsive liar. Well, at least I’ve got one thing in common with her.

My advice to aspiring writers? Don’t limit yourself to what you know. Write about what interests you, even if you know nothing about it at all.

In fact, even better advice: Write about what you’re afraid of.

What about you? What’s that thing that so interests or terrifies you that you have to write about it?

Louise Ure is the author of FORCING AMARYLLIS, a 2005 release from Mysterious Press, which has just been nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First Novel. Visit her website at:


  1. Death. I think my attempts to understand it are why I worked in ambulances for years, why I write crime, and have now combined the two with my first paramedic crime thriller coming out in 2007.

    Though of course one day I will know it ....

  2. I applaud the ideas posited in your "guest blog" and would welcome seeing more of your "takes."

    To me it takes A LOT more talent to write about that which you know little or nothing than to take bits and pieces from events or people in your life and bastardize them into some slick novel. Writing from "the whole cloth," is really the measure of talent and creativity.

    If you really want to open a channel to creative juices, the notion of writing about what you fear, could very well be a conduit to one's greatest expression.What you fear says alot about who you are. That vulnerability makes what you write, meaningful. It gives what you write, connectivity to your reader.

    I will be on the lookout for more contibutions to this site.

  3. Louise,
    What a great post. I'm glad you brought this up because so many maxims about writing limit us unnecessarily.

    I'm also delighted to hear that you've finished another book and have started a third. Yippee! (I just sent the majorly edited version of #3 to my agent and am awaiting his insightful remarks).

    Also, thanks for putting up that picture of the Tae Kwon Do (or Karate) guy doing the side kick. I've got my ugly tkd photos from my testing for red belt up at Murderati today . . .

  4. Great post Louise. It reminds me of what Elizabeth George said...instead of writing what you know, write what you're passionate about. So true in my case concerning Paris...and research is the best part.

  5. One thing, Louise, you sure know how to make research fun! (red wine is a must!)

    I am fascinated by people who start out life one way and end up changing, usually due to some tragedy. Suddenly, they are bigger than themselves.

    I like to write about things that scare me, too, like facing death. Since someone did once come into our house and hold a gun to our heads, I may be trying to work that out in my fiction. Even at that time (when I wasn't even writing books) my mind was ticking away saying, "Well, if you live through this, try to remember what it was like". Is that a craven author speaking, or what?

    I know what you mean about running as far as you can from writing what you know. My first career (failed) was as an opera singer. It didn't last long. My mother is constantly saying, "Why don't you write about opera?"

    Please, no! Don't want to. Sorry.

    One thing you and I both can write about, though, is the beautiful place that is Arizona. I loved your book, and loved going to all those places with you, ones I know so well. I particularly loved reading about Patagonia when I was in Patagonia.

    So for me, it's using the familiar and then striking out into no-man's land from there.

  6. Katherine, your paramedic crime thriller sounds grand, especially as combines two powerful parts of writing: what you know and what you're afraid of.

    Pari, congratulations on the third book, and that red belt test. I always knew you were a formidable woman.

    And thank you, Anon, for your comments. I'm going to make an attempt today to connect to that "fear." Hopefully it will bring me closer to the heart of this third book I'm working on.

  7. Oh Cara, how right you are! And your passion for Paris shines through all the Aimee LeDuc books!

    Jake, my Arizona pal, that break in by gun-toting villains must have been horrific! But your "remember this" mantra is not the act of a craven author; its what makes a great witness for the prosecution.

  8. Hi Louise!

    Great post....and you've brought back some very fond memories of Le Central....if those walls could talk, boy, would that be an interesting novel ;-)

  9. Absolutely terrific post, Louise!

    Alas, if I were to write about what I fear-I'd have to include airplanes, elevators, bridges, going past the 15th floor of a building, tunnels and underground parking. Hell, now that I see all that in print, I think I'll go back to bed and pull the covers up.

    Actually-I just had Molly Doyle face one of her fears in the new book-caves. She didn't conquer the fear though-she said facing it was bullshit.

  10. Can't wait to read your second and third books!

    For me, my greatest fear is writing about mother-daughter relationships. And I'm kind of doing that now in my current book.

    Metaphors and symbolism come in handy, too. Sometimes your conscious self doesn't realize what territory you're actually covering. It can be a thriller, fantasy, etc., but underneath all the action and made-up worlds, there may be something going on that is closer to home.

  11. Hi Louise.
    What an inspiring post! Thanks so much for taking the restrictions off of us amateurs, and *ahem* professionals too. Writing what you're scared of or passionately want to be is like a tonic. I guess I'm scared of losing control, or in another context, *busting loose* and finding personal freedom. :-D I was born terrifically shy and afraid of authority - but it didn't stop me from joining the Royal Australian Air Force and squash ten years of growing up into two. I've learned to stop letting fear stop me from taking a deep breath and then leap of faith. Fear of authority is gone but the shyness knocks the knees out from under me now and then - and it's a shock to some who see me as a completely confident and wise professional business woman, artist and writer, and confidant.
    Still: I have a fear of going on the biggest and nastiest rollercoasters; walking into a restaurant on my own; the few seconds of braking when plane lands on the runway; being too distant (plane trip away) from my soulmate for too long. Hating feeling like I'm invisible and having nothing of worth to contribute to anything.
    That's all I can think of right now. :-D But I've never let it stop me from flying or doing something new and different - it took me a long time to get to this stage.
    Thanks Louise. It would be mighty nice to read your thoughts on this blog.

  12. Louise, I'm a librarian, not a writer. And, I have to say I'm not fond of books about librarians. I'm always picking them apart. So, I don't even care to read books about my profession. I certainly wouldn't want to write them.

    Research! That's what I like to see authors say, even if it's dinner and a bottle of wine.

    And, I'm really looking forward to your next books. I hope they find a publisher soon.

  13. Hi, Rae! We keep threatening to get together in the same zip code. Sounds like it's going to be at Le Central.

    And Elaine, boy can I understand that fear of tunnels/underground/caves that you and Molly Doyle seem to share! Better that Molly didn't face the fear -- sometimes that's how people (and characters) survive!

    Lesa, I haven't read any books about librarians, but I surely do love stories about booksellers, like John Dunning's series. You too?

  14. Marianne, what a thoughtful post. Your comment about fearing a loss of control or gaining unbridled personal freedom strikes a chord with me. They're two sides of the same coin, no?

    I've noted before that the French writer Colette said she wrote "in order to live life twice." I say we write to live life better.

  15. "Write what you're afraid of"... yes... Erica Jong has a great quote something along the lines of
    "If it doesn't make you embarassed or uncomfortable, you're not writing anything interesting."
    On the other hand Louise, if you wrote a novel about killer TACOS I'd read it. In a heartbeat. You could make TACOS fascinating.

  16. And Naomi, I forgot to thank you for posting your comment!

    You're right that plumbing the depths of the mother/daughter relationship can be very powerful.

    I find that I subconsciously write about families without a father figure around. Maybe because my father was such a distant figure in my life, and died when I was sixteen? I'm not sure I know how to write about a normal father/daughter relationship.

  17. "Write what you're afraid of"... YES. Erica Jong has a great quote that went soemthing like,"If it doesn't make you embarassed or uncomfortable, you're not writing anything interesting." It's a quote that got stuck in my brain.

  18. Dear Louise,

    What a magnificent post! Beautifully written, as is everything you do.

    I'm still flu-ey, and getting rather phobic about flying to Vermont on Thursday. Not a great time for it, just at the moment.

    I hope you're having a great week, and that we can entice you back onto NA often!!

  19. Erica Jong had it right, "Foto."

    And Cornelia, travel safe! And thanks for sharing the NA neighborhood.

  20. Right On, Louise.

    Shakespeare was afraid of ghosts, yet he still wrote Hamlet.

    And, what about his famous line, "But first kill all the Lawyers." The poor guy had been tied up in litigation for years.

    Write what you're afraid of; it will lose its mighty sting.

  21. Ha! Thought you'd escape, but I will go to the ends of the earth to read anything you set down--may even go through your trash for shopping lists, at least of they have the names of your wine favorites...or favorite whines.

    I'm not a writer, but I found your advice interesting. It certainly contradicted everything I've heard, and should I ever get up the nerve to write (but I'd have to give up so much reading!),I'll certainly be guided by your (and the others who agreed with you)expertise.

    Enjoyed. Now, finish your next book; and be good to yourself,


  22. Ha! Thought you'd escape, but I will go to the ends of the earth to read anything you set down--may even go through your trash for shopping lists, at least if they have the names of your wine favorites...or favorite whines.

    I'm not a writer, but I found your advice interesting. It certainly contradicted everything I've heard, and should I ever get up the nerve to write (but I'd have to give up so much reading!),I'll certainly be guided by your (and the others who agreed with you)expertise.

    Enjoyed. Now, finish your next book; and be good to yourself,


  23. Hi Kathy! Shakespeare was afraid of ghosts? Maybe that's why he did such a great job of scaring the bejesus out of us with them.

    And Tom, I didn't know you read blogs! Thought you'd be too busy reading books. I owe you a dinner at Mariscos some day soon. And it'll be with beer, no whine.

  24. Great idea, Louise--writing what you fear. That means those of us who are cowards will have material for the rest of our lives--and then some!
    great blog that brought me out of lurkdom. Write more of them!

  25. Hey Louise,

    I knew you were one smart lady ~ this just confirms it! Beautifully written and the words apply to more than just those struggling to put their ideas on paper. Confront what you're afraid of ~ I like it...

    Waiting (im)patiently for your next book.

  26. Louise, wonderful, thoughtful post. Like Naomi, I am leery of the mother/daughter, so I write one so opposite my own that I'll never be accused of being autobiographical.
    And I'm certainly not a homicide Lieutenant, so I'm not writing what I know either. Research, research, research.
    Cornelia, don't fear flying, I'm doing it this week too. Flew last Thursday, and it was a snap. Safest I've felt in weeks.
    Thanks for the thought provoking post, Louise. I'll carry it into my work.

  27. Hi JT, Janine and Anon!

    Here's to cowardice, to resarch, and to writing! Thanks for joining me in this blogging experiment.

    And Patty Smiley? Thanks for the invitation to come play.

  28. But what about the taco recipe, Louise? Got me all excited for a moment. (I love good tacos!) Can y'all invite her back so she can post her taco recipes???

    Seriously, when I first read FORCING AMARYLLIS, I assumed that you had been a realio trulio jury analyst! I was impressed. And I totally agree. It's not writing what you know, but what excites you, what you would want to read. Good post!

  29. Thanks for joining in, Robin! You're the pro at writing what you know, but I'm happy to take the counter position.

    And I promise you that taco recipe ... homemade tortillas and all!