Authors are often asked how we choose our characters, how we compose our stories. Sometimes a character will unexpectedly pop into our lives for a brief moment, or perhaps an hour or two. And you just know you’ve got to make a place in the story for that character. Both aspiring authors and the well-published are often reminded by editors to write what you know. Those two elements are often combined to create a story. Awful things can happen when you don’t write what you know.
****One of my most embarrassing moments as a writer happened when I was standing before two hundred or so writers, editors and publishers critiquing manuscripts as a subtext in a talk on Write What You Know. There I was standing on the podium, ego rattling away on the topic when a little old lady in the second row hollered out: You didn’t!
She stood up and told the entire audience that I had a character in a book set in Louisiana perkingcoffee. Not in Houma, Louisiana, honey. Those folks drip their chicory-laden coffee. Not only that—they don’t use Half ‘n Half. Coffee is lightened with evaporated Carnation or Pet milk—right out of the can. It’s sweetened to the consistency of pudding with good old pure white cane sugar—not brown, not Splenda, not Sweet ‘n Low. No ma’am.
The awful thing was that I did know folks in Louisiana dripped their coffee. I’d been there, done the site research; I had dinner with a couple of local families. I lived part of the winter in the swamp with trappers. But when writing the scene, I typed in ‘perk’. What was I thinking? Quick—somebody get a shovel and bury me alive–right here, right now.
What happened when that darling old lady reader got to the word ‘perk’ in my book? She stopped reading the novel. I lost my credibility with that reader. She was so annoyed there was no way she was going to enter into the fantasy of romantic fiction that I thought I had created. It was just one awful four letter word and it ruined the book for that reader—and probably every other Louisiana native.
My own fault.
Well, I was trying to write what I knew. Listen, I was dumb as a rock. I didn’t know anything. Hey, I was raised poor, married poor, had five kids and stayed poor. The only sure fire thing I did know was that I oft times did not have the sense God gave a flea. Okay. For the most part I wrote about poor women with kids looking for a little love, and security for the kids. I began my writing career back in the dark ages. We didn’t have the internet, Google Earth, maps, search engines, Walmart, or reality shows.
I was writing romance novels. My mother, my aunts, my cousins, among others said, “Why don’t you right a real book?” No e-mail in those days. No respect, either. I had to shoot off letters with a ten cent Alpo Dog food coupon, sign my name with a little smiley face and tell ‘em to have lunch on me’. Seven cent stamp. Had to lick it, too. Lots of DNA in case I committed a crime.
Write what you know. Back in the day, if you didn’t know, you had to get out in the world and find it. When I was writing No Perfect Secret I needed to place two scenes in a restaurant. I spent a week in Washington, D.C. Had my little check list—Library of Congress. Tick. State Department. Tick. Decent neighborhood. Tick. Nice condo for the hero. Tick.
I had dinner in a fabulous French restaurant, but no way was hero Frank Caburn, man to the bone and reared in the Midwest–going to eat escargot or those tiny portions the upmarket French are famous for.
Fast forward. I got the kids raised. Husband left. The little twerp. My writing career waned. I got my first pedicure. Took care of the old folks. They died. I wandered thither and yon on the cheap with a dog and a tent and in between treks went to university. So now I know how to use a synonym finder, bank online and find cheap flights. Last year I heard about e-books. Whoa Nelly. Perhaps I can revive my writing career. Some of my books were not all that great, but a few of them had really good bones, and Liquid Silver Books, an e-book publisher offered me the opportunity to flesh out those bones.
Write what you know. Oh joy. We can use expressive four letter words now. We can open the door to the bedroom and let the reader peek. I may be in snip of trouble here. The little twerp was never into racy sex. I’m gonna fake it. Had a lot of practice doing that anyway.
Write what you know. Well, poor old Frank Caburn, hero, is still waiting to dine. I flashed on the internet, found a site that reviewed Washington’s restaurants, chose one, pulled up its web page, scoped out the menu, wine list, serving hours and location, checking to see if there was on-street parking. I also found pictures of the décor. So that restaurant worked for two scenes in the book. Here’s an aside. Ordinary French cafes/bistros and natives serve generous portions. It is only in classic French restaurants in which one gets a plate presentation with more plate than food. As in the Four Seasons in NYC. The reason places like the Four Seasons get five star reviews is because the food critics eat free. I took an editor to dine there once and it cost me $400. I wish I had that money back. I’d go to Bingo or get my cat spayed.
We are fortunate in today’s electronic world that we can have our characters do just about anything, anywhere in the world—background information is as close as our fingertips on a laptop. However, if you have an exquisite Korean heroine eating pizza—you’ve just made a horrible cultural error. Koreans don’t like cheese. I know it for a fact because I made that cultural error.
Write what you know. Years ago I attended a by-invitation-only writer’s school in Darbyshire, in the British midlands. A Brit asked if I would write a book with an English heroine. I said absolutely not, I didn’t know enough about British culture. I didn’t think I could create a sense of place, which is important in any book. Years later I spent a summer semester at Queen’s College and in my free time I went all over the U.K. I interviewed men laying cable, docents in St. Paul’s Cathedral, old men sitting on park benches, Council members of a small community outside London, clerks who rang up my purchases in grocery stores and gift shops and mimes in Covent Garden. I read every newspaper I could get my hands on—especially the help wanted ads. I went to all the theatres. Now, I would be comfortable writing a story placed in the U.K. or having an American character living there. However, he or she would not use an American Express card because few merchants accept Amex. Nor is the English pound interchangeable with euros, but an American ATM card will spew out pounds in the U.K. or euros in most European nations. (Provided you first let your bank know you are traveling outside the U.S.—otherwise it will not honor requests).
I also took the Chunnel to Paris and spent a week in France. Watch out for the Gypsy pickpockets! One that approached me was so damned good I gave her a couple of euros in exchange for the entertainment.
Write what you know. I recently began e-reading an intrigue. First page, the author has a character stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. No way. I have been in that museum, stood in front of the Mona Lisa. It is a very small portrait behind specialty glass and rife with sensors. There are barriers to keep a viewer five feet away and guards to move the viewers along. The author did not give the reader any plausible scenario about how that piece of art could be stolen. As a reader I am very forgiving of the improbable. However, it is up to the author to make me a believer. Okay—so if your character needs to steal something why not the Forster Codices (five of de Vinci’s notebooks) at the V&A Museum in London? The Codices are not as well-known as the Mona Lisa, and a writer could take some license. The key—the writer better know about museums and security systems, about old masters, how they are stored and how they are displayed. And especially how to market a stolen art work, the value of it and the people who would buy it. Stolen art never stays with the thief. Old masters are not something auctioned on e-Bay.
Write what you know. I’m not the only author who made an error that ruined a book for a reader. I have a favorite thriller writer. I downloaded his new book the minute it hit Amazon. After chasing the bad guy through a number of countries, the hero catches and disposes of the villain in Panama, killing him and dumping the body over the balustrade of a fancy hotel onto the deck of a ship exiting the Panama Canal. Oops. There isn’t a hotel in Panama that overlooks any one of the three locks. Every lock is fenced and there’s about a half-acre of ground between the mechanical mules that guide the ships and that fence. Actually there are no buildings whatsoever overlooking the locks, not in Gatun, Mira Flores or Pedro Miguel. I was really happy that this error occurred in the denouement of the book because it didn’t ruin the book for me. But I do wonder how he made such an egregious error and that it got by his editor, the copy editor and proof reader. Notice I am not saying this author can’t write. He can. He’s fabulous. I’ll buy his next book, too. Perhaps, I’m the only reader that noticed that error. Yet, what he wrote could not happen in real life or fiction. And therein lies the rub—it only takes one person to know what you don’t know, didn’t learn, or let slide—to undo all the pride and creativity we put in our books.
Write what you know. Last week I picked up a medical thriller. It had a gem of a plot and the blurb was extravagant. Three throwaway lines pulled me right out of the book. The author wrote that we in America could not buy Tylenol over the counter. He overlaid foreign pharmacies on the American model. In many foreign countries, especially undeveloped nations, one does not buy an entire bottle of aspirin or another other type of pill. It is too costly for the natives. Pills are sold individually—one or two at a time. Next the author had a three-star American army general wearing those stars above his left shirt pocket. Holy moly. That’s how dictators wear all of their gaudy medals. American military officers wear rank insignia on their collars. Third, the author wrote that a tour guide in the Amazonian basin ran a hundred miles to get help for an injured tourist. Nobody runs a hundred miles in the Amazon or in any jungle for that matter. I lived in a jungle village for two years with my dog. He didn’t run, either. Scientific expeditions are often way off a beaten path, but the ordinary tourist, no. You slog through mud, quick sand, ford creeks, swim rivers, hack paths with a machete, raft, paddle a canoe, or hire some sort of river craft. Oh, did I mention the wildlife? Boa constrictors, anacondas, bushmasters, pit vipers, tarantulas as big as dinner plates, palm wasps that dive straight for your eyes, blood thirsty bats, fire ants, army ants, marching ants—all of which will devour flesh—even the leaf cutters. Cute little frogs the size of a thumbnail—touch one and you’re dead. Leave an injured tourist who can’t defend himself in a jungle overnight, something is gonna eat him.
By now, you’ve figured out what I figured out. The book was probably translated into English and/or —the writer didn’t know a great deal about America. Hey! He figured he was writing fiction so made up how we shop for meds, how our generals wear their stars and he just threw in the bit about the tour guide because the line made the tour guide seem like a caring fellow. I slogged through the book anyway and offer kudos because the author had the moxie to give it a shot. The premise of the tale was outstanding. He just didn’t pull it off—not for me anyway. On the other hand, I am told this author is an international best seller; that he is right this minute on a quest to climb the world’s thirteen tallest mountains AND he is learning to pilot a deep sea submersible. Sounds as if he quit his day job don’t it?
For the most part what we do as writers is take ordinary people and places and raise them to the level of art. The only way we do that is with words. Art is what you know. Artis how you weave words to make a character or a place or an action believable.
If you’re writing a story that moves across borders or eras, begin with what you know, your own experiences and you expand that with the knowledge of others. It helps to know some trivia such as salads in the U.K. and France and other European nations don’t come with salad dressing and only sometimes with oil and vinegar–except in Paris where it might arrive drizzled with a warmed watery honey. Central American natives gag on dill pickles but will serve a guest the choice bit of chicken out of the pot—the head boiled complete with eyes, beak and brain. Yeah. I ate it. Tasted just like chicken brains. Ew.
But of course the world you live in is what you know best. Where you grew up, where you work, where you go on vacation, where you do grocery shopping: You know the nearest beach, lake, golf course, movie theatre; the best and worst restaurants. You know your neighbors, your family and the mood of your community. You know rumors and secrets. If you know anything about sex, you’re ahead of my game.
I still cringe when I recall that little grey-haired lady calling me on how I had a character in my book brew a pot coffee. Recall has kept me humble and not quite so careless. Now, as I write a new book or ready a book from my back list for e-book publication, it is always in the back of my mind that if I write something that bumps a reader out of my story, or annoys that reader because I got it wrong—it could be all over the internet within hours—with an audience of thousands—not a mere two hundred.
I believe when I’m promoting my book that I’m making a covenant with my reader. I’m promising that if she buys my book I’ll entertain her for hours on end. If I make a good effort to write what I know and research what I don’t, I’m giving good value.
Lastly, you may write a novel in which you are certain you used what you know to create a terrific read. The plot worked, the characters grew, the dialogue raced along, the dénouement was happy ever after, yet the book gets mixed reviews or none at all. What the heck?
This happened: I was autographing. A middle-aged fan gushed about a scene in the book where the heroine was snapping green beans. It reminded her of good times on her grandmother’s farm. She used to help her grandmother snap beans by the bushel. Y’know, it wasn’t much, but it made me feel good. So later I asked another reader if she enjoyed the scene with the heroine sitting in a swing and snapping green beans. She said, “Not really. They weren’t organic.”
Honey, the reading public is fickle.
Write what you know. Oh, I forgot to tell you. There are concrete barriers all around the White House now. But the sidewalks are wide and I was doing the tourist thing. There was some jeering behind me. I turned around. Prancing toward me in a pair of size eleven red Jimmy Choo knockoffs while fielding a bunch a catcalls is this he/she/it. It was wearing a short black spandex skirt, leopard print blouse (Royal Silk), four pair of Tammy Faye eyelashes (Trivia: eyelids are the weakest muscle in the human body), a Sheena the Jungle girl wig—or maybe it was left over from Halloween. Inch long nails painted fire engine red. An over the shoulder Coach purse.
I am ashamed to tell you, I gaped. I am after all an international traveler—on the cheap, I admit. But I have met the Queen of England and Prince Phillip, I have been to Buckingham Palace, I have seen a man walking down a foreign street in a diaper, I did sit on a cardboard box next to Paul Newman at Ria Shors while we waited for our respective masseurs, I did once ride in an elevator with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and I have been robbed—twice. My mouth was so wide if somebody had pounded me on the back right then my teeth would’ve taken a hike right through the fence and landed on the White House lawn.
Grinning, the creature came abreast of me. “What you starin’ at sugar?”
“You. You’re amazing.”
“Ain’t I just tho?”
The long and the short of it is we had coffee, and I interviewed the heck out of him. It was a him. He had a package. Substantial, he said. No, I didn’t see it. He had a Notebook in the purse and showed me his webpage.
Write what you know. I went right home and wrote him into No Perfect Secret. Oh, he was a D.C. local, and he pointed out an underground restaurant that was useful to my story. Best pizza I ever ate.
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