Writing Lesson #8—How to write what you know (about murder).

Writing classes and texts have two mantras: "Show, don't tell" and "Write what you know." The first is discussed in Lesson 7 and now we approach the tricky one because how can mystery writers "write what they know"?

The answer is: the way any author "knows" his subject. Certainly, first-hand experience is valuable, but that isn't what is meant by "know." Writing autobiographically, which is how some people interpret what works best for people writing about exceptional life experiences: big game hunters, survivors of war, mafia dons, celebrities of one sort or another. But what if you're the sort of introspective person who wants his big adventure to be writing books—not fighting wars, etc.? You can still write about wrestling alligators or climbing Mt. Everest even if it's not in character for you—if it works for your fictional character. In truth, most people who get their adrenalin rushes through sky diving and the ilk, not from anything as mundane as sitting in front of a computer and imagining the world, would never have the time or inclination to write their book.

If that adage to write what we know was to be taken literally, how would anybody write historical fiction, or science fiction—or murder mysteries (especially if you want to write more than one!)

The fact is, every writer, including you, already "knows" what needs knowing—because what needs knowing (and showing) is what it's like to be a human being. Everything else—occupations, places, times—everything—can be researched (something we'll discuss next time).

Research facts. Research data. This may include research about your characters' professions, or research into mental illness, or the personalities of serial killers—or whatever else you need to know about. But getting the facts right and bringing them to life are two different things, and in order to do the latter, you'll have to pull on your great reservoir of knowledge about human behavior.

Bring those facts and your book to life by creating people who demonstrate what you already know. We'll be able to identify with your characters when you do—when you acknowledge that we're all made up of the same human elements. That doesn't mean we're all alike (fiction would be too boring to exist if humans were generic.) The proportions of the various elements and their dominance varies from person to person, some may be stifled, some not acknowledged—but each one has got the same allocation of available emotions as you have.

You, the author, merely have to pay attention to them. Perhaps first to acknowledge them, because we don't feel too comfortable with the very passionate, sometimes negative emotions that will be the stuff of our fiction. So we have to admit to having felt rage, or envy, or lust, or embarrassment and shame—and so forth. Flaubert said "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." He wasn't an adulterous housewife, and you aren't a crazed serial killer and perhaps not even a brave, stoical, emotionally crippled sleuth. Or even an adulterous housewife. But you can be all of them and more, as long as you understand that whoever it is, "c'est moi."

We have to think about what those emotions truly felt like—and then, we have to bring that sensory data to the page. And because your reader is also made of the same basic materials, he'll recognize the reality of your characters and believe in them.

You've felt at least a twinge of every human emotion by now, haven't you? What triggers those emotions and how much they dominate behavior may separate you, a wonderfully normal human being, from the psychopath, but the baseline emotions are the same.

We'll assume you've never committed murder—but haven't you ever been in a situation when you felt, even if for a fleeting second, that you just might? Take that fleeting second's worth of emotion, focus on what it felt like as it was growing, and inflate it. Make it what's dominating your (murderous) character's thoughts and life. Make it all he can see when he opens his eyes. Make him not react normally to the stimuli around him (and you know what's normal—it's how you'd react.) Make him obsessed with those thoughts if that works for your plot. Think about how his muscles feel while he's having these thoughts, what part of the truth around him he sees, how he might dress, drive, speak or react when he's possessed by those emotions.

This works with less extreme emotions as well. Even if you're a brave soul, if you can summon the memory of being timid and shy about something, you can remember how your heart pounded, your palms grew damp, how terrified you were of saying anything, or saying the wrong thing-and you can give all that (and whatever else you recall) to a character and make it dominate his or her actions, make it direct her choice of words—and make it work.

You can be anybody, and you can therefore bring life to the page and you'll be writing what you know—but happily without the necessity of directly experiencing it first.

Next: How to find out what we truly don't know: Research.

On to Lesson 9!

Adapted from: You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts.


© Gillian Roberts.