Write What You Know About: Guest Post by Mark Sullivan
Mark Sullivan is the author of THIEF, the third novel in his Robin Monarch series, which launched Dec. 16. 2014. He’s also the author of thirteen additional thrillers, including three in the PRIVATE series, which he co-writes with James Patterson. He was an Edgar Award finalist, winner of the W.H. Smith award for “Best New Talent,” and his debut novel, THE FALL LINE, was named New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a rare honor for a debut. He currently resides in Montana with his family.
Write what you know about.
It’s old advice to would-be writers, but nearly twenty-five years into my novel-writing career those words of wisdom are as valid and helpful as ever.
When you write what you really know about, your language gets better, as do your abilities to improvise grammatically and to think long-term, all of which are critical to a successful novel.
When you write about skills you have mastered, the words crackle and spark on the page because they are authentic. They are informed and accurate and the reader reacts by trusting the writer. When you write authentically, you not only build belief in your story, you create a pleasing electrical current in the reader’s mind that is similar to a dream state.
Don’t think that’s true? Consider what happens when you’re reading along, fully immersed in a novel, and you come across something inauthentic or maybe flat out wrong in a text or story. It’s as if a plug has been pulled from the socket.
The dream state—that pleasing current of trust in the storyteller—has been broken. Sadly, that disconnect creates suspicion in the reader’s mind. It stops paying attention to the story and looks for other incorrect moments. Find a second, or worse, a third inaccuracy and the suspicion becomes conviction that the writer doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Trust is broken. The current quieted. The book is closed and tossed.
All this is a roundabout way of explaining why my hobbies and personal interests inform so much of my writing. Every fight scene in every one of my books has been choreographed based on my twenty years of training in Aikido, and my nearly fifty years of practice with rifles, shotguns, pistols, and bows.
Nothing breaks the dream of an action sequence in a book or movie quicker than a martial arts move that is impossible—the only person who seems to get away with it is Quentin Tarantino. I tend to avoid the barely possible. I want something that by nature the reader understands even if they have no fighting background. So I’ll have a character perform a joint lock on an opponent--the wrist, say, turning the hand over and to the outside so fast that the bones of the wrist and forearm break spirally. Got it?
The same familiarity creates snappy, vivid language no matter what the activity a writer might be describing. Skiing, another one of my passions, can be found in at least two of my novels. To write The Fall Line, I went and hung out with extreme skiers who ended up populating the book. Skiing took me inside the Yellowstone Club near Big Sky, and led me to imagine my novel Triple Cross.
I didn’t know much about caves before I wrote Labyrinth, so I learned. A lot. I even took an advanced level course in cave and karst geology at the University of Western Kentucky, as well as a week-long seminar in speleology, or cave exploration. On one of our trips we were underground for a full day. When I sat down to write the book, it was all there. I didn’t have to research much because I knew my subject, which allowed me to play and be creative on the page.
The same has been true of the Robin Monarch series. To write Thief, I went to Brazil for three weeks and hired guides to give me crash courses in everything from research universities in Rio to the upper Amazon rain forest. I relied on my early days as a financial reporter as well as friends on Wall Street to devise the despicable tycoon Beau Arsenault. And after nearly fifty years handling rifles, I was able to come up with an authentic scenario for the final big “shot” of the book.
Do I make mistakes? Sure. And the great thing is readers are quick to point them out.
But on the whole I think I get it right. With Monarch, I’ve tried to go everywhere he goes and see everything he sees, and I try to grasp his skills and tools at a personal level.
As a result, my readers have a gut feeling that what they’re reading about is authentic. They get that electrical current humming in their brains, and they lose themselves in the dream state I’ve created.