Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere

Write what you know?

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Sounds like a great idea, right? If you write what you know, just think of all the research you don’t have to do. That’s more time you can spend actually writing. Then again, you miss all the fun of actual research (I mean, just think of the rabbit holes you can explore when you google “lethal food”). Disclaimer: No, I haven’t googled it yet, but I write mysteries, so I’ll get there πŸ˜‰ .

Not only do you get to skip out on a lot of research, you get to use all that special knowledge you’ve got stored in that gray matter of yours. It’s almost as good as bar trivia, right? I mean, if you find a substitute for drinking a shot every time you get a question wrong (just to keep the record straight, I’ve never personally played bar trivia, but I wouldn’t mind trying it πŸ˜€ )

Sounds like a plan. Heck, a lot of writers do it. Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist, just like Kathy. John Grisham is a lawyer in the South, and he writes legal thrillers set in the South. Right now I’m reading a Jammer Davis book by Ward Larsen. Jammer is an ex-Air Force pilot and aviation accident investigator, just like … wait for it … Ward Larsen. The list goes on.

It’s a good way to make your characters sound authentic. And that’s the idea, right? Make the reader believe your character really knows what s/he is doing. If you are an investigative journalist and know the ins and outs of the business, including working for a television news station, your investigative journalist character will be authentic and believable, just like Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Charlotte McNally.

Since you’ve done the job, you can add extra details to ensure the reader believes in the character. And adding that tidbit to the blurb lends you some weight with readers. Think: well, this author is a third-degree black belt in jujitsu, so this book about a ninja should be pretty good.

But … (you knew this was coming πŸ™‚ )

There’s a line between authenticity and readability. If you worked as a chocolatier for ten years, and your main character is a chocolatier, you can have that character describe how to get the perfect temper for the chocolate. If you, a geologist writing a thriller, make your character a geologist,Β  that character can describe the aspects of drilling for oil, or searching for gold, or taking core samples in Antarctica.

And just as you’re describing how the change in strata means a volcanic eruption a couple million years ago produced a solid vein of gold rather than gold scattered through the rock, your reader is skipping ahead to where the bad guy has your main character lined up with the cross-hairs of the scope of his high-powered rifle.

See the dilemma? You want to include the details to prove you know what you’re talking about, but unless the reader is interested in geology, they don’t want to wade through that. If you want some examples of TMTI (too much technical information), read Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan books.

dash8 smOkay, so how much do you take out so the reader won’t skip that part? Or, how much do you include to make sure the reader knows you know what you’re talking about? That’s where I’m at with my manuscript. After talking with my agent, and reviewing the somewhat-but-not-very-helpful feedback from the publishers who have passed, I’m tweaking my manuscript to remove even more of the TMTI bits, because we suspect that might be a big part of the reason they passed. If the editors stumble through those parts, it ruins the reading experience. In fact, the most recent publisher to pass said it was a really close decision. If there’d been a little bit less TMTI, would they have accepted it? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s something.

For instance, my main character, who is an aircraft mechanic, is asked about the fire bottle for the auxiliary power unit (APU) in an airplane. Initially, she described it thus:

β€œFire bottle. If there’s a fire in the APU, it’ll blow. There’s an explosive squib here,” she pointed to a nodule on the bottle connected to a wire harness, β€œthat ruptures the diaphragm and releases high-pressure suppressant.” She indicated the line that carried the chemical extinguisher to the combustion chamber of the APU.

If you’re someone familiar with mechanical stuff, you can probably follow this pretty well. But if you have trouble doing more than pumping gas or airing up your tires, you’ll probably skim this. So, time to leave out more of the details:

β€œFire bottle. If there’s a fire in the APU, it’ll blow. There’s an explosive squib here,” she pointed to a nodule on the bottle connected to a wire harness, β€œthat releases high-pressure suppressant.”

Why did I keep the detail about the squib and the wire harness? Because it’s relevant in one of the climax scenes. Which is smoother to read? The second one, I hope.

I’ve pulled a lot of the remaining technical details out (by this point far less then in earlier drafts), but it’s still a struggle of wanting to prove I know what I’m talking about (authenticity) and making it accessible to mostly non-mechanical readers (readability). After my guinea pigs–er, readers go through it, I’ll send it to my agent for the next round of submissions. Here’s hoping!

It’s been a short week–at least it seems like it. Had a nice day with relatives last week, and everyone (in-laws) got to meet my son’s girlfriend. Whew, it’s over! For all those who celebrate Easter, have a blessed holiday weekend. For everyone else, get writing!

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Author: Julie Holmes, author

Pen name: J. M. Goebel A fiction writer since elementary school (many years ago), and NaNoWriMo annual participant for a decade, I've been published in small press magazines such as "Fighting Chance" and "The Galactic Citizen". Currently I have two polished novels ready for the world and a number of others waiting their turn. I write adult mystery with extrasensory elements, mystery with a touch of romance, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy. In real life, I am a technical writer with a family of two teens, a wonderful hubby, one cat (what writer doesn't have cats??), two dogs, six chicken, and more chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits than any garden should have to deal with. My garden, our "au natural" hobby farm, and Ma Nature's annual seasons are some of my muses.

17 thoughts on “Write what you know?

  1. It’s a tough thin line to straddle. Sometimes all the technical information fascinates me, but I admit it does depend on the subject. It also seems that most readers prefer shorter books these days, and that means eliminating information. I still love to sink into a thick epic story, but I have to admit I was lost in example one up above and liked #2 much better. It sounds like you’re on the right track with tweaking. Fingers crossed and sending you good luck wishes.

    Happy Easter!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Mae! Considering most readers are women, and (yes, being stereotypical) most women are not mechanically inclined, the technical stuff is too much. But I wanna put it in there πŸ˜€ So, I took out a bunch of stuff, and hopefully my test readers will point out what still doesn’t read smoothly.

      Happy Easter to you and yours as well!

      Liked by 1 person

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  3. Great post, Julie, and it is a close call. With something as technical as airplane maintenance, it doesn’t take much to convince a reader that you know what you’re talking about. Good luck with the revisions, and I hope it does the trick. Have a great Easter. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good luck with the technical revisions. The good news will happen Soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s the great thing about beta readers, to let you know when it’s too much. I’m reading a book on the CIA for research purposes. It’s quite enlightening, and I look forward to sprinkling in the tidbits that I’ve learned. And ahem, no cats OR chicks? Now that I know you have both I aim to be even more demanding. Heh. Heh. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Glad you had a good time with your relatives last week, Julie! And yeah, good it went well with your son’s girlfriend meeting the family – always nerve-wracking!

    This is a great post and a reminder about the potential pitfalls with TMTI (too much technical information) – what a brilliant phrase and abbreviation – you should patent this!! In your example, the second one is way easier for me (the non-technical person that I am) to read. I must admit books with too much detail slow me down until I sometimes stop. At the moment I’m struggling through a book for NetGalley which I love for the characters but the financial banking detail is bogging me down alas…might have to give up on it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ugh–just the mention of “financial banking” in the same sentence makes my eyes glaze over πŸ™‚ Your comment on the NetGalley book sounds like some of my feedback. They love the characters, but some ambiguous something else meant they had to pass. LOL on the acronym–thanks! I have no idea if anyone else uses that, but it seemed to fit πŸ™‚

      Have a great rest of your week, Annika! Hope your vacation is going (went?) well. Happy Spring!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Julie, I had a most wonderful holiday and only came home late last night. Is it possible to get jet-lag on a two hour flight? Feel detached from the world and world weary…hope the calm finds it way back soon! Have a lovely week too! πŸ˜€β€οΈ

        Liked by 1 person

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