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Thursday, September 22, 2011


            “Write what you know”—next to “show, don’t tell,” that’s probably the advice writers hear most often. It can feel pretty limiting. What if you want to write a war novel, and you’ve never been to war? You can research battles and weapons, you can read soldiers’ memoirs, but can you really know how it feels to run forward as bullets fly past you or hurl a hand grenade at another human being? Can you describe those moments vividly enough to bring them alive for readers? Or should you forget the war novel and stick to writing novels about preparing tax returns, or persuading toddlers to try new vegetables, or doing whatever else you know best?
            I don’t think so. I think that we can write what we don’t know, and that we don’t have to feel guilty about doing it. Some of the most distinguished fiction writers have done it, admitted it, and encouraged us to follow their examples.
            For example, in his autobiography, Mark Twain says some of his characters are based on people he knew. His mother, for example, provided the model for Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly. In general, though, his knowledge of himself gives him the insight he needs into other people. “Broadly speaking,” Twain says, “we are all alike,” so he learns about others “by studying myself carefully and comparing myself with other people and noting the divergences.”
Is Twain right? If we write mysteries, can we use our understanding of ourselves even when we create killers? Well, the motives for murder definitely include anger and hurt, fear and frustration. We’ve all experienced those emotions; when we portray our murderers, we can start with those. If we also think about what Twain calls “divergences”—if we identify the qualities that keep us from acting on our more dangerous emotions—we can imagine a character without those qualities. That gives us our murderer—someone who’s like us in some ways, unlike us in at least one crucial respect.
Edith Wharton, author of such classics as Ethan Frome, makes a similar point in The Writing of Fiction. “As to experience,” she says, “the creative imagination can make a little go a long way, provided it remains long enough in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break.” The crucial thing for writers, according to Wharton, isn’t experience itself. It’s more important to have emotional depth, “hearts that can break.” An emotionally stunted person couldn’t create characters readers can care about. But writers must also reflect on the emotions they’ve experienced. Only after we’ve “brooded upon” our experiences can we “make a little go a long way.”
            Anthony Trollope, a highly successful Victorian novelist, also believes in making a little go a long way. To this day, his six novels centering on the clergymen of the fictional cathedral city of Barchester are probably his most popular works. In his Autobiography, Trollope says people often asked him what cathedral cities he’d lived in and how he’d become “so intimate” with clergymen and their ways. In fact, Trollope never lived in any cathedral city but London and had no close friendships with clergymen.
Instead, Trollope says, the characters in these novels were “the simple result of an effort of my moral consciousness”: “In writing about clergymen generally, I had to pick up as I went whatever I might know or pretend to know.” The first Barchester novel, he says, sprang from a desire to comment on social “ills” involving the clergy and the press. From this desire, combined with Trollope’s “moral consciousness” and his ability to pick up bits of knowledge (or pretended knowledge) came six novels still praised as classics of realistic fiction.
            Today’s writers, too, can find ideas in the social “ills” they read about, and can use their “moral consciousness” to write about things they haven’t experienced. Like many others, I was both amused and appalled by two stories that came out late in 2009—the parents who pretended to fear their young son was aloft in a runaway balloon, and the couple who crashed a White House party. In both cases, apparently, the motive for misbehavior was the desire to get on reality shows. Since I write mysteries, I started wondering whether someone might actually commit murder to become a reality-show star. I came up with an idea for a novella involving a rising politician, a fading beauty queen, a slick gun lobbyist, an ambitious television reporter, a determined police detective.
            It felt like a good plot, a good opportunity for humor and social satire. One problem—I don’t know any politicians or beauty queens, any lobbyists or reporters or detectives. I don’t even watch reality shows.
            As an academic, though, I’ve known plenty of campus politicians. I’ve known people who cling to past glories, as my beauty queen does, people as smooth and unscrupulous as that lobbyist, as driven to get ahead as that reporter. As for the detective, I imagined what kind of cop my husband might’ve been if he’d chosen police work instead of academics. I tried to create a detective with his alert intelligence, his approach to analyzing people and situations, his sense of humor, his sturdy sense of decency. The resulting novella, One Shot, blends a little experience and observation with a fair amount of imagination. I don’t know if there really is a beauty queen like the one in my novella, a lobbyist like mine, a detective like mine. But I feel confident that there could be. Characters can be realistic even if they aren’t, strictly speaking, based on reality.
            Henry James, the revered author of over twenty novels and novellas including Portrait of a Lady and The Turn of the Screw, also offers encouraging words to writers yearning to venture beyond the bounds of their experiences. In “The Art of Fiction,” James describes experience as a “huge spider-web” that can catch “every air-borne particle in its tissue.” Like the spider-web, an imaginative mind “takes to itself the faintest hints of life.” A true writer can convert those hints into compelling fiction.
            To illustrate his point, James describes an unnamed English novelist who wrote a highly praised tale about young French Protestants; when, people asked her, had she observed her subjects closely enough to portray them so realistically? The novelist told James that she’d simply passed an open door in Paris once, and glimpsed some young French Protestants sitting around a table. “The glimpse made a picture,” James says. “It lasted only a moment, but that moment was an experience.” Writers don’t need much literal experience—not if they have active, fertile minds.  The crucial thing, James says, is to “try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost!”
“Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost”—has better advice ever been offered to writers? Some people can pass through all sorts of experiences without gaining significant insights into them, or having anything much to say about them. Other people can grasp at “the faintest hints of life” and use them to create characters and situations that go far beyond their own experiences.
            I’ll mention a story of my own here, only because I think it shows how any writer can use the “faintest hints of life” to create a work of fiction. Several years ago, my husband and I had dinner at a less-than-great restaurant in Toledo, Ohio. Not far from us I noticed an elderly man wearing a baggy sweater, sitting alone at a table. The waitress brought him a martini and a glass of water, and he went through what looked like a ritual: Drink a sip of martini, replace it with a splash of water, take another sip of martini, add another splash of water—sip and splash, sip and splash, until both glasses were empty. The waitress then brought him soup, a roll, a basket of crackers. Slowly, he ate the soup and all the crackers, then wrapped the roll in a napkin and put it in his pocket. Next, the waitress brought him coffee and something wrapped up to go—a sandwich, maybe. He took a long time with the coffee. Twice, the waitress refilled his cup and paused to chat; once, someone who might’ve been the manager walked over to chat with him, too. When my husband and I left, the man was still sitting at his table, drinking coffee, eyes roaming hungrily over everyone in the restaurant.
            Did glancing at that man from time to time for an hour or so qualify as an experience? Compared to traveling to India or pulling off a bank heist, it wasn’t much. During the weeks that followed, though, I couldn’t get that man out of my mind. Why did he stretch his meal out so long, and why did he take half his food home? Maybe he couldn’t really afford to eat at a restaurant, but felt so lonely that he couldn’t deny himself the small pleasure of being around people for a few hours. Maybe the roll would be his breakfast the next morning, and the sandwich—or whatever it was—would be his lunch; maybe that’s how he justified treating himself to a restaurant dinner. And the food at that restaurant was lousy. Why did the man keep coming back—assuming that he did keep coming back, that the little episode in his life I’d witnessed wasn’t a one-time event?
            I found myself imagining a life for the old man, something that explained his apparent loneliness, his quietly odd behavior. And the waitress, the possible-manager—were they just being kind to a borderline eccentric old man? Probably, yes—but since this was to be a mystery, I imagined darker, more complicated motives for them. A story began to take shape.
            I called it “Table for None,” and it appeared in the May, 2008 Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Probably, every day, we all miss “hints of life” that could help us write stories. But once in a while, if we work to stay alert, we’ll catch one.
            Write what you know? Sure. But also write what you guess, what you imagine, what you conclude after careful thought, what you infer from the inevitably limited opportunities for experience and observation any single human life supplies. If you want to write a war novel but have never been to war, go ahead. Stephen Crane did that, and The Red Badge of Courage has given millions of readers insights into how it feels to be locked into a battle they can neither control nor understand. Take what you know of fear, of desperation, of honor, and translate it into a situation you’ve never directly experienced. If you’ve observed closely enough, if you’ve analyzed deeply enough, if you’ve imagined fiercely enough, you might just have something.

Award-winning author B.K. Stevens recently published an e-novella, One Shot, with Untreed Reads. This traditional whodunit, available at Amazon and other online vendors, takes a satirical look at issues ranging from gun control to reality shows. Almost forty of B.K.’s short mysteries have appeared in print, most in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She’s also published three nonfiction books.


Shirley said...

Hi Bonnie,

I've enjoyed your stories in Alfred Hitchcock for years. I'm sure I've read the one about the man in the restaurant, but of course, I can't place it now. And I don't save magazines. Darn it.

Do you have a certain time of day when writing suits you? Or do you just write whenever a story possibility strikes you.

Stephanie Jarkins said...

Thank you so much Bonnie for writing a thought provoking blog. The quotation: "Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost” is going into my inspiring quotes file. I had a dreadful conversation at Bouchercon last week, it has stayed with me. Must use it for a character. I'm off to get your novella.

Stephanie Jarkins
twitter: skjarkins

Angela said...

Beautifully presented, Bonnie. When people ask 'where do you get your ideas?', I have to wonder if they absorb what is around them or move through life as if it were a hologram to be passed through. I believe only writers truly 'know' life. Thank you for being here :-)

Wanda Fittro said...

Thanks for a very insightful post. When I hear people say write what you know I get discouraged. All I know is wife, ex-wife, mother, daughter and government worker. But through my writing I realize there is a wealth of experience in feelings. Thank you for expressing this so well.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

From my viewpoint, being published
in A.H. is huge! I like your idea of observing and then using your imagination to develop it into a mystery story. There's so much "reality" all around us that can be developed into excellent fiction or faction.


Jacqueline Seewald

Shirley said...

Bonnie, I just downloaded your book to my Kindle. Can't wait to read it. Is it also available in print?

Beth said...

What a great post! Thank you for this insight. I'm in a rush to leave so I'll reread this again when I have more time.

So excited to hear from one of our JANO participants who has done so well. Shirley had mentioned you'd been published in Alfred Hitchcock several times--very impressive. Thanks for the great info and inspiration.

Three questions: How do you shut down social media and other distractions in order to WRITE?
And how many hours a day do you write?

Finally, how did you find the e-book process (getting your book as an e-book)?

P.S. Your characters in your novella, One Shot, sound great!

Janet Kay Gallagher said...

Wonderful information. Thanks for sharing. Want to read your writing.

B.K. Stevens said...

Hi, Everyone--

Thank you so much for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and I'll try to respond to your questions and ideas.

Shirley--I'm delighted to hear that you've liked the Hitchcock stories. No, I don't really have a particular time of day when I write; I basically fit it in whenever I can. Unfortunately,I find that when I have a whole day free for writing, I tend to fritter the morning away on e-mail, chores, and such, probably because I feel as if I have plenty of time and don't need to get down to writing just yet. As the day goes on, a sense of urgency builds, and I focus more sharply on writing--sometimes really heating up just when it's time to start making dinner. Oh, well. One of the great things about JANO was that it motivated me to make better use of my mornings. And no, ONE SHOT isn't available in print, except as a PDF.

Stephanie--"Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost" is one of my favorite quotations. I sometimes put it on the first page of the syllabus when I'm teaching a writing course. (Here's another good one, often attributed to Thomas Edison, though I've never been able to track down the exact source: "Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.") I'm sorry to hear about the awful conversation at Bouchercon, but if it gives you the seed for a good character, I guess it's worth it.

Angela--I agree. Ideas for stories (or novels or plays or whatever) are everywhere. To be writers, we have to be receptive enough and creative enough to respond to them.

Wanda--Your comment reminds me of Edith Wharton's statement that writers "must have hearts that can break." There's something comforting, and invigorating, about realizing we can use all of our emotions and experiences, both joyous and painful, to enrich our writing.

Jacqueline--Yes, one of the many wonderful things about being mystery writers is that when we observe something we don't understand, we can think, "Great! I just observed something mysterious! There's got to be a story there!"


B.K. Stevens said...

Hi, Beth--

I’m glad you enjoyed the post. As to shutting down social media and other distractions in order to write, I wish I were more successful than I am. Recently, I read Lawrence Block’s very helpful TELLING LIES FOR FUN & PROFIT, and I’ve been trying to follow some advice he gives in the chapter called “The Carrot and the Stick”: “Put writing at the top of each day’s list. Make it the first thing you do.” Every time I’ve actually followed that advice, it’s worked beautifully—I get a significant amount of writing done, and I somehow manage to get to other things later. Too often, though, I feel pressured about getting classes prepared or essays graded, or I yield to the temptation to linger over e-mail or do other things that require less effort and concentration than writing does. I know what I should do, but I don’t always have the willpower to actually do it. I’m working on it. As to your second question, I don’t write a set number of hours each day—I wish I did. On my best days, I’ll write for ten or twelve hours. On other days—today, for example—time gets eaten up by teaching, grading, an interminable dentist’s appointment, and half a dozen other things; I haven’t written a word yet today, even though I’m working on a story I’m very excited about. Maybe it’ll still happen—I sometimes stay up ridiculously late to get some writing done. And in reply to your last question, I enjoyed the e-book process. It took longer than I thought it would for the novella to come out, but compared to the years often spent waiting for a print book to appear, it wasn’t bad. I’m glad that I worked with an e-publisher, rather than trying to put the novella out myself. I found the editing at Untreed Reads thorough but respectful, I think the cover is better than anything I could have come up with on my own, and I know I don’t have the expertise and connections needed to make the book available through so many vendors. So if you’re thinking of putting out an e-book, I’d definitely recommend working with an e-publisher. People with more technological know-how may feel differently, but I’m happy with the choice I made.


B.K. Stevens said...

Hi, Janet--

Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed sharing some thoughts with fellow writers, and it's exciting and illuminating to see how they respond.


Kaye George said...

What a valuable post! I love all the quotes from the great writers. You put a lot of work into this. It's a mini-course for writers.

I always love to see your stories in AHMM. Looking forward to more! The novella sounds terrific, too.

Earl Staggs said...

Bonnie, I never bought into that "Write what you know" thing but relied on my imagination. Fortunately, my imagination is a bottomless pit in which I find much more interesting story ideas than I do in my real-life experiences. Like you, I'm very happy with what Untreed Reads did with my story "Where Billy Died." Best wishes for continued success.

B.K. Stevens said...

Hi, Kaye--

Thanks for your comment--it's great to hear from a fellow Untreed Reads writer. I always find it helpful to see what classic writers have to say about writing. Even ones who lived a long time ago faced some of the same challenges--and opportunities--that we do.


B.K. Stevens said...

Hi, Earl--

Thanks for your comment. Yes, if I had to rely on my real-life experiences for ideas, I'd be in big trouble as a writer, too. And congratulations on achieving best-seller status with "Where Billy Died."


y-write said...

You are right on, dead on, in fact. Great thought-provoking post.