Write what you know. It’s a phrase branded in the memories of writers everywhere. This weeks’ Killer Nashville guest blogger has a little something to say on the matter though. Write what you don’t. Scott Graham discusses his adventures traveling across Texas and learning his craft.
Write what you know. So goes the age-old authors’ adage.
Then again …
When I sought to switch from nonfiction to fiction writing, what I didn’t know—and wound up learning during a confounding road trip through Texas—led to the conception of my National Park Mystery series. From there, continuing to focus on what I didn’t know helped me develop the protagonist for my series and the personal challenges he faces.
For a number of years, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring new-to-us national parks across the West with our two sons—until we decided, one fateful spring break, to visit Big Bend National Park in far southern Texas. We set off as we always did, with a camper full of food and the plan to pull off the road to explore public lands as we passed through them along the way.
But we didn’t know our American history well enough.
As an enticement to lure Texas into statehood, public lands in the Republic of Texas were turned over to state ownership upon the creation of the Lone Star State in 1845. The Texas state government promptly sold off more than 216,000,000 acres of those newly acquired lands to ranchers and speculators. As a result, Texas today has one of the lowest percentages of public lands of any state in the nation.
Modern-day rural Texas is a seeming paradise of vast and beautiful expanses, yet the thousand-mile drive south through the state was far from paradisiacal for me and my family. Magnificent mountain ranges and windswept plains were fenced off from us, side roads gated and locked, rural highways lined with No Trespassing signs. All the way to Big Bend and back, we spent our nights in crowded, edge-of-town commercial campgrounds, boxed in by behemoth recreational vehicles.
The frustration of our Texas fence-out led my wife and me to an even greater appreciation of the public lands of the United States, showcased especially by America’s open-to-all-comers national parks. When I turned to writing fiction, I resolved to dedicate my new murder mystery series to celebrating “America’s best idea,” its publicly owned national parks.
Each book in the series, I decided, would be set in a specific park and would seek to capture and share with readers that particular park’s unique sense of place, beginning with that most iconic of America’s preserved landscapes, the Grand Canyon. Thus was the setting for the first book in my series, Canyon Sacrifice, determined.
But what, in the national park milieu, would comprise a workable profession for my protagonist?
I turned, again, to what I didn’t know for the answer.
I needed my amateur sleuth, Chuck Bender, to be an independent sort who could bounce with logical ease from park to park. The solution: Chuck would be a professional archaeologist, moving from one park to the next performing temporary, contracted archaeological digs in each. But while that profession for Chuck would serve my needs well, I didn’t know much about the field of archaeology.
I signed up for a course on the basics of the craft aimed at would-be volunteer archaeologists. When the lectures proved fascinating and the field work engrossing, I realized my readers likely would enjoy experiencing the field of archaeology through Chuck as much as I enjoyed learning the subject in preparation for writing my series.
Finally, I needed to load Chuck down with some personal baggage. Who, after all, wants to read book after book about a protagonist whose life is tranquil, composed, and trouble-free?
Once more, I turned to what I didn’t know to add strain to Chuck’s life. I gave Chuck—long a set-in-his-ways, middle-aged loner—a new family in the form of a headstrong Latina woman with two young daughters.
What did I, a middle-aged Anglo guy and father of two sons, know about Latino culture and raising daughters? Very little. But learning along with Chuck would enable me to share his missteps and confusion as he dealt with his new, unfamiliar role as an instant father in an ethnically mixed family.
With the release in June of Yellowstone Standoff, the third book in the National Park Mystery series, and my recent completion of Yosemite Fall, book four in the series slated for release next year, I’m continuing to revel in figuring things out each step of the way along with my readers.
Write what you know? Sure.
But the real fun and challenge of fiction writing, I’ve found, comes from writing plenty of what I don’t know as well.
Scott Graham is the National Outdoor Book Award-winning author of eight books, including the National Park Mystery Series for Torrey House Press. The third book in the series, Yellowstone Standoff, was released in June. It follows 2014’s Canyon Sacrifice and 2015’s Mountain Rampage. Graham lives in Durango, Colorado. He writes the Prose & Cons book review column with fellow award-winning mystery and true crime author Chuck Greaves. Learn more about Graham, Torrey House Press, and the National Park Mystery series at scottfranklingraham.com and torreyhouse.org. Reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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