Sunday, 12 June 2011

Action First

“Write what you know dear.”

Umm, maybe.

But maybe that works better for more ‘literary’ novels than our favourite mystery genre.

Literary novels in fact are often very factual, very much based on what the writer actually does know and the kind of people he or she hangs out with. Alas, most writers live ordinary lives. They pick their kids up from daycare, win or lose at office politics and worry about their sex lives or who’s cutting the grass. They aren’t captains of industry, showgirls, women police officers, private investigators or SAS Special Forces parachute jumpers deployed behind enemy lines. Sometime it is hard to care in much contemporary literary fiction whether the boy will get the girl and a job at the plant or the lady with the green flowered curtains wins the bakeoff down on the farm or leaves her husband.

But mystery or suspense authors grapple with life and death, betrayal and honor in darkly compelling settings most of us writers, like most readers, will never inhabit. As a kid I fought giant snakes with Bomba the Jungle Boy, and escaped danger piloting a speedboat with Frank and Joe Hardy. I was also presented at Napoleon's court with Desiree and later married the king of Sweden. Action and adventure, outsize settings like jungles and palaces, hospital emergency rooms or parliament let you dream a little bigger whatever your age.

Because the more important half of “write what you know” is write characters that you know, characters with flaws, ambitions, illicit desires, feelings of loss, joy and satisfaction. Then place those characters in exciting situations and watch things start to boil.

When you give your readers a tantalizing puzzle to solve, life and death situations plus scenery or even fashion then you capture their attention so together you can delve into your characters’ hearts and the myriad decisions they, and we, make each day for good or ill. Those are the memorable stories, when you write what you know.