“But I don’t know anything interesting.”

Every so often, I’ll get a letter from an aspiring novelist and it’ll go something like this:  “I want to write mysteries, but I’m not in the medical field, and I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t know anything about police work.  I’m just a (teacher/housewife/salesclerk) so I don’t know what I’d write about.”

Well, let me tell you about my own life.

For years, I had two careers.  By day I was a doctor.  But in the evening, I’d clear off the dinner table and take out my typewriter and I’d turn into a novelist.  Did I write medical thrillers?  Nope.  I wrote love stories.  I wrote about spies and cops and newspaper reporters.  I wrote about Vietnam vets and English gentlemen and cat burglars.  Oh yeah, I did write about a doctor here and there, but that was the exception.

Mostly, I wrote about other professions.  Professions that I thought were a lot more interesting than mine. 

What? you may ask.  Medicine’s fascinating!  It’s life and death!  But the truth is, when it’s your job, you forget that outsiders find it fascinating.  You just go to work every morning, do a few physicals, maybe save a life here and there, and then you go home and cook dinner.  Ho hum.  Any profession, when it’s yours, starts to feel ordinary.

I remember hearing an account of a space shuttle landing.  The President was there, along with his Secret Service entourage, to greet the returning astronauts.  After all the formalities were over, the astronauts crowded around the Secret Service guys because they wanted to know all about their exciting jobs protecting the President.  And the Secret Service guys were anxious to hear about the astronauts’ far more exciting jobs in space.  Each group  thought the OTHER GUYS had the more interesting life.

That’s the way it is with doctors, too. We think that lawyers live in exciting John Grisham novels while we’re stuck in hospitals poking our fingers into unsavory orifices. 

It wasn’t until I finally got around to writing my first medical thriller, HARVEST, that I realized my job might actually be interesting to other people.  My literary agent gave me a tip that I’ve since taken to heart:  “Readers want to know secrets.  They want to know what only you can tell them.  The things doctors don’t want outsiders to know, the lurid tales from behind the OR doors.  You may think these details are all boring, but others will be fascinated.”

She was partly right.  People are fascinated by the details — but only some of them.   I don’t think they really want to hear about the drudgery of medical charting or the phone calls to insurance companies.  What they care about are details that have inherent drama to them.

And that’s my job as a novelist — to separate the dry details from the really cool details.  The real challenge, as Elmore Leonard once said, is to leave out the boring stuff.

When I include technical details, I find a way to make them interesting.  If it’s necessary to the plot, then you have to find a way to spark a reader’s interest.  In GRAVITY, for instance, I have a section about the way an astronaut prepares for a space walk.  It’s important stuff, because the reader needs to understand that you don’t just suit up and pop out of the spacecraft — you have to camp out for hours in a special room while your body adjusts to a lower air pressure.  And then, when you do leave the spacecraft, you have to make sure all your safety backups are working.  The way I approach such potentially boring details is to tell the reader what happens when things go wrong — and believe me, a death in space is not a pleasant thing to contemplate.  Suddenly that emergency tether becomes very, very important to remember.  And a lot more interesting.

But what if you’re not a doctor or a cop?  What if you’re, say, a waiter or a dishwasher in a restaurant?  Then I suggest you pick up a copy of one of Anthony Bourdain’s books.  Start with Kitchen Confidential.  Tell me if he doesn’t make the restaurant business a wacky, utterly fascinating universe.  What if you’re a schoolteacher?  Think about all the interesting things you’ve discovered about teenagers.  Taxi drivers and airline mechanics and petroleum engineers all know secrets we’d love to know about.  Once I met a geologist who really wanted to write a murder mystery, but he complained that he didn’t know anything about police work.

Who needs cop expertise? I told him.  You’re a geologist!  There’s got to be a geolgoical mystery that you alone can come up with.  Surely you can find something interesting about shale!

Perhaps you really can’t find anything about your job that’s interesting.  Or maybe you’re a lawyer and you hate, just hate your job.  Are you still forced to write about what you know?

Absolutely not.  Then you should write about what you want to know.

After writing four medical thrillers, I was tired of the genre.  I have a lot of other interests, archaeology and history among them.  And every book has been about a subject that I was fascinated by.  In THE SINNER, it was leprosy and nuns.  In MEPHISTO CLUB, it was about the ancient lore of demons.  In THE SURGEON, I explored the history of human sacrifice.  The point is, I couldn’t write the books unless I myself was delving into something that interested me.

If your subject matter isn’t exciting to you, that boredom is going to show through in the book.

Yes, the chances are, you do know something interesting.  Or maybe there’s some subject you’d love to explore.  Throw yourself into it, no matter how obscure it may be.  Learn hieroglyphics.  Read up on tree rings.  If you find these subjects exciting, the chances are, you can make them exciting in a novel as well.

Just leave out the boring stuff.


12 replies
  1. Vanessa F
    Vanessa F says:

    Great advice! I’ve always wanted to write a medical thriller. But have yet to come up with a good plot and I don’t know enough medical terminology to make it believable. So I’ve stuck with what I know- romance 🙂 and people tell me I write beyond my years. Maybe someday I’ll write that thriller.

  2. Larry Willis
    Larry Willis says:

    Good words today Tess. I’m an Engineer who used to build nuclear power plants. Boring right? I’ve always had this lust for creative endevors. I’m working to finish my forth manuscript. I think it’s fasinating to study what others do for a living and how they go about their jobs. What does it take to be an ER doctor, or a fireman, or cab driver? The great thing about writing is that I can do my research and then sit at my computer and develop characters to be whom ever I want. Like Einstein said, ” Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

    St. Louis

  3. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Marvelous post, Tess. I’m an RN, working in an insane urban medical center (I’m sure you can relate), but I’ve chosen to make my protag a PI. His girlfriend is a nurse, though, so I still get to use some of my knowledge in that arena. 😉

    That’s the thing: Use what you have, invent or research what you don’t. That age-old adage to “write what you know” is way too limiting, IMO. Learn about what inspires you, write about that, and the enthusiasm will come through.

  4. Daisy
    Daisy says:

    Another thing about writing in your own field is that you can get bogged down in reality. I’m a biologist (okay, research associate at a biotech company, but that’s a lot of words for “what do you do”) and I have never managed to write a decent story in a scientific setting because I keep getting hung up on the details and the need to explain what everything is. Which may be just my problem, but I do think it’s harder to let go of accuracy for the sake of story in a field you know intimately.

  5. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    ever notice that the best crime/mystery/thriller books usually aren’t written by cops?of course there are exceptions(Caunitz,Wambaugh,Born)-i think it is way too easy to worry about authenticity to the point of forgetting there’s supposed to be a story here-this goes for any occupation-if you’re going to write about your own field in any depth,nonfiction seems the better route-tess,you never overload your stories with medical stuff-there is always a balance with a good yarn

  6. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    That’s true, writing about what you want to know can open doors for more topics to write about b/c we all want to know more. But you, Dr. G, even use your already learned knowledge in the Rizzoli series with Dr. Isles. You describe what goes on in the autopsy room and how she does such and such to the body…not everybody knows those procedures, so we’re (at least I) grateful that you ARE still a doctor sometimes in your novels.

    I want to write about a young diabetic struggling to learn about his disease and learning that a cure is right around the corner but our President won’t allow the cure to be developed. I am a diabetic and I think I would be able to give a lot of personal experience in my writing because of that.

    You really just have to write about what you want to write about. If you don’t know any medical jargon, pick up a medical terminology book at your local Barnes and Noble, look through it, give yourself a few weeks to get accustomed to the “language,” and then you would be on your way to knowing more in that field. Also, if you really want to delve into the body, you can pick up Saladin’s “Anatomy and Physiology: Form and Function” for a little less than 200 dollars. It’s a fantastic human Anatomy textbook.

    And when you think you’re getting into “boring” stuff just remember that when people read they like to know the background stuff to know how the thing is working. You wouldn’t just delve off into a surgery without first telling where the person is and if he/she is under anesthesia. Of course, some things are just common knowledge, like of course there is going to be a surgeon in the room, etc. Good points there Dr. G, sorry to ramble on haha.

  7. Cara
    Cara says:

    I would imagine in a highly technical field, such as a Dr or biologist, some people might need to practice the art or creating a novel in general to prevent being bogged down in the details. I could never write about jewelry because I would want to lecture my reader on maintenance (retip your rings people and stones don’t fall out!) but who wants that?

    Maybe the better path to follow is like Tess, write something you enjoy and wait until you are something like oh, a bestselling author writing outstanding books with a basis on your education! The practice probably helps gain perspective for some. I know in a previous blog Tess wrote about how professionals don’t always make it as a writer and maybe this is why?

  8. struggler
    struggler says:

    Yet another on-the-money topic, Tess. In my case, throughout my career a real conversation-stopper is my answer to the question “So what do you do?” and I tell them “I’m a financial adviser” to which the lengthiest response I can remember has been “oh”. I’ve had some interesting times (as you know) but somehow, no-one really believes me!

    But since money is supposedly the root of all evil (alongside love and religious divide) there must presumably be scope for a story using my own experiences. But these days, after 30 years of talking about money, even I struggle to find it interesting myself, so my inclination is to focus on my own fantasies which (of those I can post here) include eye-for-an-eye retribution, when fraudsters get defrauded, wife-beaters get beaten up and rapists get raped. I’ve long complained at the inadequacies of our ‘justice’ system (can I mention OJ and Jacko as examples) and since I know I can never do anything about it, the next best thing I can do is write about it, in a way that fits in with my utopian ideals.

  9. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    “Readers want to know secrets.”

    What a great nugget of writing advice. Thanks for sharing, Tess!

  10. Amy MacKinnon
    Amy MacKinnon says:

    The members of my writers’ group were discussing this very topic last night. Three of us are embarking on new projects, none of which are part of our personal experiences.

    I don’t believe Ernest Hemingway was correct when he said, “Write what you know.” I think the better advice is to write what you want to know.


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