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October 23, 2009

Write What You Know?

One of the problems I’ve run into in writing twisted books about serial killers is that people seem to assume all writers heed the advice to - generally spoken in a Morgan-Freeman-being-God kind of voice - WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.

Seriously, I once had neighbors that kept me at arm’s length after they heard what I write about. I guess they thought I must know something about being a serial killer, or at least enjoy the concept in a fantasy sense. One Halloween they got up the gumption to talk to me, and asked me what costume I was planning to wear.

“Oh, I’m already in costume,” I replied.

They frowned, puzzled. “What do you mean?” The husband asked.

“Well, I’m going as a serial killer. They’re monsters that wear people costumes, get it? ” Then I let my left eye twitch, followed by some hearty, back-slapping laughter that ended as suddenly as it had begun.

I know, I know. It was mean. But their attitude had been pissing me off for a year, so I gave into my pettier impulses. We had no further interaction.

The point is, ‘Write what you know’, while sound advice, can’t always be applied. Sometimes, you have to ‘write what you think you know’ or ‘write what you can surmise.’ When it comes to something as twisted and alien as a serial killer, the best I can do is to try and understand them by comparing their experience to something more human. For example: I’ve had experience with drug addicts. I’ve watched that craving, the kind that opens up a hole in people that they’ll use anything to fill. They’ll pack anything in that hole, from their self respect to their family’s love, and often do. So I took that experience, which I can at least relate to on some level, and applied it to understanding a serial killer. I imagined having that same kind of craving and need to kill other human beings, and I did my best to relate it.

But did I know it? Of course not. And I hope I never do.

This also pops up in writing the character of Smoky Barrett. I’m a guy, she’s a woman, I write her in the first person. What’s more, she’s a woman who’s experienced rape, and half of her face was disfigured by her attacker. Well, I’ve gotten an email or two from female readers accusing me of writing such a character so I could ‘experience her rape vicariously’. I would probably have found this devastating, had I not gotten a letter early on from a woman who did, in fact, experience being raped and disfigured in her home. It’s one of only two actual snail-mail letters I’ve received from readers (email rules the day), and in it she thanked me for my portrayal of the main character. She said it made her feel good to read about someone else overcoming that and getting on with their life, too.

I can’t know what she went through, and would never claim that understanding. I tried, instead, to tap into what I have experienced and observed on the subject of human suffering, and did my best to convey that. I’m pleased where it worked, and offer my most sincere middle finger to those ladies who wrote me those emails, few though they were.

Not all writing is about what you know. In fact, for me, a lot of writing is about the opportunity to try and understand those things you find a mystery.

In the end, I think that’s a big part of what keeps me writing. Hopefully, it’s part of what keeps you reading, too.

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