About 18 months ago I was at the York Writer’s Festival pitching my book 66 Metres to three agents, who all roundly rejected it. One of them took me aside, and said, ‘Look, this book is about a young Russian woman. You’re not Russian, you’re not a woman, and let’s face it…’ He told me to write about what I knew. I decided to stick to my course instead, and a year later 66 Metres was published by Harper Collins.
But ever since that conversation, it got me thinking about the adage ‘write what you know.’ What about all those crime writers? Are they all murderers and serial killers in their spare time? What about science fiction writers? Do they all have spaceships locked away in their garages?
I like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. To say I’m not alone is a whopping understatement. How does he convince the reader that this fiction could be reality? The answer is detail. Pick up any Jack Reacher book and what you see on every page is details that ground the book, as if you’re there. You have the feeling that he knows his stuff. There is an authenticity about his writing. Not only is there information, it feels as if this is ‘insider’ information, the kind of info you don’t find by simply clicking on Wikipedia. Take a look at the opening of Gone Tomorrow, the one I’m reading right now, and you’ll see what I mean.
But even doing deep research can only get you so far. Reading and doing aren’t the same thing. Sometimes you need to know what something feels like, physically and emotionally, or else you’ll never draw the reader in.
When I had to write a scene where Nadia fires a magnum .45 in order to save her sister, I realized I’d never fired a handgun. I wrote the scene anyway, but even to me it seemed flat, false even. So I went to a gun range and did some basic training for a few hours, firing various pistols until we finally got to the big one. It is quite spectacular – the recoil is extreme, the muzzle flash is scary, and the noise absolutely deafening. It feels like you’re firing a cannon. I rewrote the scene, put it at the start of the book, and arguably I think that very scene was what won over Harper Collins.
Of course there is stuff I do know a lot about – same goes for any of us – we all have deep expertise. Mine happens to be scuba-diving. So I can put details in there that only instructors know – little tricks of the trade they don’t normally teach you. And I know what it is like to black out underwater, because it happened to me, as well as narcosis and close encounters with large sharks. Most readers say the book really comes alive and is most intense in the underwater sections.
Diving is also a big part of my motivation for writing this series. Although there are exceptions, often when I read thrillers where there is any diving at all, I wonder if the author has ever put their head underwater. The technical details are all off, and the experience doesn’t ring true. I guess they
get away with it because most readers have never dived either. But I’d like to set the record straight.
But back to the agent’s comment. First, I’m not a woman, and the protagonist (Nadia) is. I based her on a blend of a fictional character and a real – and somewhat exceptional – woman I know. Nadia is not very girly, and is to some extent the son her father never had but always wanted. I do admit I had to talk to some women to get the sex scenes right, as men and women really don’t see things the same way when it comes to sex.
Second, I’m not Russian. I spent some time diving with Russians in Egypt a few years ago. I was the only non-Russian in the resort. They took me in and I got to understand them a little. I also met someone who was almost certainly Russian Mafia. I have a lot more work to do on this, I freely admit, but I now have a fascination with Russia and Russians.
Third, I’m not as young as I used to be. Okay. But I still think that way…
So, can you write what you don’t know? Yes, but you need to blend it with something you do really know about. Then you’re more likely to have the reader give you the benefit of the doubt about the part you don’t truly know.
My next book, 37 hours, comes out 17th March, and is set in four locations: Murmansk, a remote island off the coast of Borneo, Chernobyl, and London. It involves diving a submarine, a stolen nuclear weapon, a vicious shark attack, advanced interrogation techniques, and radiation poisoning. Do I know about these things? Strangely, more than you might think. I wasn’t always a writer…
[P.S.> a reader who recently read the prologue to 37 hours commented that it read like a Jack Reacher novel. I don’t actually think mine is to the same standard, but I couldn’t ask for more!]