Write What You Know
That’s probably the oldest cliché ever about writing. Practically guaranteed to pop up somewhere in virtually every “How to write a terrific novel” book ever written.”
But how can you write what you know when the story you want to write is a suspense thriller about a homicide cop who has to track down a sadistic psychopathic killer who kills by surgically removing the hearts of his still-living victims? That’s what I set out to do when I sat down to write my first thriller, The Cutting.
I’ve never been a cop. I’ve never been a heart surgeon. And I’ve never killed anything more challenging than a few zillion mosquitos who, frankly, asked for it by drawing my blood first. Yes, doing away with Anopheles quadrimaculatus as the Romans used to call them is something I do know about. But who wants to read a book about some crazed psychopathic killer of mosquitos? (Actually, given the runaway success of books that focused on things like Dust and Salt, a book about Mosquitos might do quite well. Anyway, I digress.)
Still, write what you know about still seemed like sound advice. And it is. It just shouldn’t be taken too literally. Yes, my hero in The Cutting is a homicide detective and no, I’ve never been one. But he’s also a human being and I’ve been one of those all my life. He’s a father. I’ve been one of those for quite a while too. He hangs out with a beautiful woman who happens to be a talented artist. Hey! So do I! Now we’re getting somewhere!
My hero in The Cutting, Detective Sergeant Michael McCabe, was born and raised and worked in New York City before moving to Portland Maine. Guess what? Me too. I know both towns well. And both cities are important elements in The Cutting. Especially Portland.
In fact, my editor at St. Martin’s Press, Charlie Spicer, said that knowledgeable and intimate way I was able to write about this very cool little city were aming the key reasons he wanted to buy The Cutting and a second McCabe novel, also set in Portland, that will be coming out next year (tentatively titled The Chill of Night.) Write what you know about.
Anyway, you get it. You may be writing a science fiction fantasy about a character who lives on Mars or maybe even Pluto. Just base your characters on what you know of life and it will work. Allow them to see their world through your eyes and in the end they’ll be just as real as you are. I think that’s what the old cliche means.
Like McCabe, I’m a native New Yorker. He was born in the Bronx. I was born in Brooklyn. We both grew up in the city. He dropped out of NYU Film School and joined the NYPD, rising through the ranks to become the top homicide cop at the Midtown North Precinct. I graduated from Brown and joined a major New York ad agency, rising through the ranks to become creative director on accounts like the US Army, Procter & Gamble, and Lincoln/Mercury.
We both married beautiful brunettes. McCabe’s wife, Sandy dumped him to marry a rich investment banker who had “no interest in raising other people’s children.” My wife, Jeanne, though often given good reason to leave me in the lurch, has stuck it out through thick and thin and is still my wife. She is also my best friend, my most attentive reader and a perceptive critic.
Both McCabe and I eventually left New York for Portland, Maine. I arrived in August 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks, in search of the right place to begin a new career as a fiction writer. He came to town a year later, to escape a dark secret in his past and to find a safe place to raise his teenage daughter, Casey.
There are other similarities between us. We both love good Scotch whiskey, old movie trivia and the New York Giants. And we both live with and love women who are talented artists.
There are also quite a few differences. McCabe’s a lot braver than me. He’s a better shot. He likes boxing. He doesn’t throw up at autopsies. And he’s far more likely to take risks. McCabe’s favorite Portland bar, Tallulah’s, is, sadly, a figment of my imagination. My favorite Portland bars are all very real.
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