Friday, November 13, 2009

Write What You Know

© James Hayman 2009 all rights reserved

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 among 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 cliché means.

About the author:

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. You can visit our website at


J D Webb said...

Spot on, James. Now I'm getting ready to stash away my bug zapper. Could be a story in that.

Katie Hines said...

When I was writing my book, Guardian, it was set in Maine. I wrote to a librarian in Bar Harbor, asking if she knew of some books that would give me a good background feel for that part of the country.

She replied snidely that I should "write what you know" and that because I obviously wasn't, she wasn't about to help me.

Did I ask for that? No, most emphatically. I eventually got the information I needed from several different sources, but it would have been nice to have had the help.

Marta Stephens said...

James, I always questioned whether I knew anything anyone would want to read about. I find now that “Write what your know” goes deeper than the knowledge we carry around in our heads. It's the experiences that are uniquely ours.
Many thanks for sharing!

s.w. vaughn said...

Fantastic advice - and I really love your bio! :-)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

James, this is a delight, and right on target! I spent all my summers in Maine at my grandparents' rustic fishing camp, and am still in love with the lakes and woods. (near the Belgrade Lakes) I have a piece about Gus LeGarde (my protag in LeGarde Mysteries) where I compare our assets and strengths as well. As luck would have it, he's a much better man than me. But damn it, he wouldn't be alive if it weren't for me, so there! LOL. Thanks for guest blogging on MB4 today!

Cheryl said...

Excellent advice James. I used to think writing what you know could be so limiting, but you've just provided me with a different perspective.



Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Thanks, James. If enough successful writers, such as yourself, promote this attitude, it'll go a long way to establishing a better range of books. And the reader in me appreciates that.

Kim Smith said...

Gang, I have recently finished reading The Cutting and it is one fantastic read. If you are looking for a great thriller, pick this one up!
James, just awesome to have you here on Mb4. I loved having you on Introducing Writers and hope you will come back with the next book in the McCabe series.

Dawn Anon said...

I've struggled with understanding the difference between writing "what" i know and "who" i know. I have a career that provides a TON of great story lines but i couldn't figure out how to write any of it without causing a lawsuit. Recently, i started to figure out that it's the "what" i know and applied to fictional characters. Not so easy to do, but i think i'm getting there.

And here you've put it into words in such a helpful way!!! thank you!