Writing What I Know

I am an author and I love being an author, but I don’t really think of myself as a writer. I say this a lot and bring it up again to use it as an explanation for this post. I don’t feel the need to write. I don’t write every day, and when I do write, my word count is pitiful compared to the pros (the prose pros). Sometimes I enjoy writing, but mostly I just enjoy having written. I think I have above average writing skills, and I think I am getting better the more I write and the more I read. Writing, like most skills, will improve with practice. I anticipate being much better at in ten years than I am now. Maybe by then, I’ll enjoy it more too.

I love to make up stories, and I am an author because I have finished some of those stories, but the writing part often frustrates me.

My storytelling greatly improved and became less of a struggle when I finally decided to follow Mark Twain’s advice to “write what you know.” I used to think it was limiting to write about what I knew. I thought what I knew was boring. I couldn’t see how what I knew would help me tell the stories I really wanted to tell: epic science fiction and fantasy adventures. When I made up stories like this, I would come at it from the perspective of characters who were foreign to me. I couldn’t relate to them. I didn’t know what they were supposed to know, and I couldn’t fake it. The result was that my stories were two-dimensional and uninteresting. I could set a story in the most fantastic place in the universe with the most amazing creatures ever, but I didn’t know them, and I didn’t know how to know them.

Then in 2002, a friend loaned me Stephen King’s book, On Writing. This book helped me change the way I approached storytelling. There is a marked difference in my stories before and after reading this book. It also helped me to expand my thinking when it came to developing story ideas.

There is a section in the book where he says: “If you’re a plumber who enjoys science fiction, you might well consider a novel about a plumber aboard a starship or on an alien planet….remember that plumbers in space is not such a bad setup for a story.”

When I first read this book, I had never considered any of my past jobs to be all that interesting, and I doubted anyone else would find them interesting either. But I realized it wasn’t the jobs themselves that had to be interesting. I could make the situation interesting, I could make the character realistic by drawing on my personal life experience, and then it didn’t matter what the character did for a living. The character’s personal knowledge would bring the story to life.

I have a degree in fine art with an area in photography. At that time, in 2002, I worked in a one-hour photo lab in a mall. I didn’t like the job very much, but I got to thinking about a story from that perspective.

Here I am in 2002 at my photo lab job.

Here I am in 2002 at my photo lab job.

What would happen if I processed pictures of something amazing?

What if someone brought in a roll of film that documented a crime?

What if I saw something I wasn’t supposed to see?

What if there was a store in the mall that sold otherworldly things?

Suddenly I had ideas for a dozen new stories all told from the perspective of a guy working in a one-hour photo lab in a mall. I had the knowledge of photography and photographic processing to make the story realistic. I knew what it felt like to work in a job I didn’t like. I knew what it felt like to deal with demanding customers. I could take this mundane job and spin a fantastic tale around it.
The result was my first completed novel. It was no great work of literature, but it was my first finished book, and I was proud of it. Compared to my past attempts at writing, this was easy to write. I knew what I was talking about and it all just flowed out of me. Plus the story was believable because I drew from my personal experiences. In case you’re wondering, I self-published it under a pseudonym, and I think I have sold a total of nine copies in the past twelve years.

Rather than struggle to write from the perspective of a special forces badass or a cop or a spaceship captain, I could tell an equally interesting story from the point of view of a retail employee or museum director. I have my own unique life where I experienced emotions, thoughts, and conversations. These experiences can be transferred to my characters. They can be exaggerated and spread out over several different characters. I have enough of these experiences to keep me busy for a long time.

Does that mean my stories are autobiographical? No, not exactly.

People often ask me if the main character in The King of Clayfield series is me. He had the same job I had, he lives in the same town in which I live, and I like to think I share some of his better traits, but that’s where it ends. I’m not as clueless as he was in the beginning, but I do think I would experience some of the emotions he experienced, particularly when it came to killing. I wrote him the way I did (some say as a wimp) because I thought it would be more interesting to watch him grow and develop into something more in some areas of his life, but also lose part of himself too. The character in the story closest to being me is Blaine.

My day job at the time I wrote Clayfield was being the director of a nonprofit art center and museum in a small town. One day, after a conversation with a friend, I stood in my office and asked, “What if a zombie apocalypse happened right now in my hometown?” It wasn’t an original question—plenty of people have asked it—but I was able to take that question and develop a story from my unique perspective and populate that story with characters, places, objects, animals, and situations that were realistic in an unrealistic scenario because they were what I knew. I didn’t set the story in Houston or Las Vegas or Rome because I don’t know those places. I had to research some of the things with which I was unfamiliar, but there was a difference in that information I had gathered from books and videos than from the things I knew from experience.

The fact that the main character of the Clayfield books was a museum director had little bearing on the actual story, but he was able to relate some of what he was going through with his job or his love of history and this added another dimension to the story. Other things in the story—particular guns or growing food or raising chickens—I knew from personal experience. I own guns. I know what it feels like to shoot certain guns. I know what it smells like, what it sounds like. I did not know what it was like to be near a tank when it fired. I could watch a video and describe what I saw, but it is not the same as actually being there in person. I did the best I could with that scene, but I didn’t dare write an entire book set on a battlefield full of war machines. That is not to say I will never write a story like that, but I will need to do much more research before I attempt it. It’s the little details that make it more believable.

I have another dozen ideas for stories from the perspective of a small-town museum director. My most recent series, Agents of the Ancients, revolves around a teenager whose summer job is working in a museum in a small town.

When I look back over my job history I can see big potential for other main characters. I have mowed lawns, done farm work, been a janitor, worked in retail, worked in a toy factory, cleaned up after fires, done photo restoration, installed garage doors, been a freelance artist and graphic designer, and worked in galleries and museums. Those are just the jobs I’ve had, just small part of my life experience. It doesn’t even account for my relationship experiences, my childhood, my travels, my education, my interests and hobbies—my life.

I can still tell epic science fiction and fantasy stories, but I can do it based on what I know and have experienced. The main character doesn’t have to be a starship captain, a Navy Seal, or an ER doctor to have an interesting story to tell.

Ordinary people in an extraordinary situation always makes a good story.

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