We have all been told, time and time again, to write what we know. It’s such common advice in the writing community that we sometimes fail to think critically about what the advise means. Not all of us are going to be experts on every subject we write. This weeks’ guest blogger, Samuel Marquis, revisits this age-old saying and gives it fresh light.
The clichéd advice to “write what you know” is one of the best and most misunderstood pieces of literary counsel given to suspense novelists. It has two components, and both are important in bringing authenticity to your fiction.
The first component is to write what you know based on your intimate familiarity with a professional occupation, event, or setting, which brings verisimilitude to your novel by having your protagonist and other characters move about authentically in the world they inhabit, as well as talk in the proper cultural dialect or techno-speak. The second component isn’t about professional occupations, events, or settings, but rather about infusing your novel with the visceral emotions that you yourself have felt through your joy and pain, suffering and triumph in the world.
My Joe Higheagle Environmental Sleuth Series (Blind Thrust: A Mass Murder Mystery and Cluster of Lies, Book 2 of the series, September 2016) is based on my nearly thirty years experience as a professional hydrogeologist involved in environmental health risk assessments, groundwater flow and transport modeling investigations, and serving as a groundwater expert witness in class action litigation cases. The authenticity factor is high in the series because my protagonist essentially does what I do for my job, but there is an important emotional component to the work experience I draw upon as well.
The first book in the series, my award-winning earthquake thriller Blind Thrust, is based on my experiences in California and Texas as a Registered Professional Geologist in assessing earthquake hazards and fault classifications on behalf of real-estate developers in environmental site assessments. The original inspiration for the follow-up Cluster of Lies was drawn from my professional experience working on the Rosamond cancer cluster case in Southern California. Think Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, and Michael Clayton but set in Colorado.
With regard to Cluster of Lies, visiting the town of Rosamond, reviewing the documents on file in the local library, and interviewing residents experiencing the cancer cluster firsthand had a profound impact on me, and I would not have written the novel without having worked on Rosamond directly. Like most environmental cancer clusters, the Rosamond cluster remains a mystery to this day, and unresolved real-world mysteries are always a good starting point for a thriller.
In the case of Cluster of Lies, it was both my professional experience and the emotional context that provided powerful fodder for the novel. Through my personal involvement on the project, I could not help but feel the sense of sadness, frustration, powerlessness, and anger of the families and townspeople adversely impacted. The palpable emotions I felt in investigating the cancer cluster ultimately enhanced the narrative power of the novel.
But most thriller writers don’t have the luxury of being an expert on their subjects based on their professional job, so the emotional component of “write what you know” is often more important to authenticity. In that case, it still helps to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding and appreciation for what your protagonist and other major characters do for a living.
That’s why I read everything I can get my hands on and interview as many qualified experts as possible for my novels. For my award-winning political thriller The Coalition, I spent an entire day at the FBI Field Office in downtown Denver meeting with FBI agents and staff members, and they were all amazingly helpful. And for my forthcoming Book 2 of my WWII trilogy, Altar of Resistance (January 2017) and my Nick Lassiter International Espionage Series, I have a former U.S. Army Ranger as an advanced reader to make sure I get my soldier/spy lingo and my gunplay right.
Once you’ve done the mega-research, the key is then to resist the temptation to show off your research skills and overload your books with excessive technical and/or historical details, or to include a high level of detail without actually advancing the plot or having characters that captivate readers.
In the end, the objective is to immerse the reader in a new and exciting world while still moving the plot along at a furious pace and making the reader feel as though the details are not details at all, but at the very heart of the setting as well as the characters and their motivations.
To do that, you have to truly feel the emotions of your characters and both understand them and love them (especially your villains). If you succeed in that, then trust me, your readers will feel it too.
Samuel Marquis is a bestselling, award-winning suspense author. He works by day as a VP–Principal Hydrogeologist with an environmental firm in Boulder, Colorado, and by night as the spinner of the Joe Higheagle Environmental Sleuth Series, the Nick Lassiter International Espionage Series, and a World War Two Trilogy. His thrillers have been #1 Denver Post bestsellers, received multiple national book awards (Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year, USA Best Book, Beverly Hills, and Next Generation Indie), and garnered glowing reviews from #1 bestseller James Patterson, Kirkus, and Foreword Reviews (5 Stars). His website is samuelmarquisbooks.com and for publicity inquiries, please contact Chelsea Apple at email@example.com.
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