Every so often, I’ll get a letter from an aspiring novelist and it’ll go something like this:Â “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.Â I’m just a (teacher/housewife/salesclerk) so I don’t know what I’d write about.”
Well, let me tell youÂ about my own life.
For years, I had two careers.Â By day I was a doctor.Â But in the evening, I’d clear off the dinner table and take out my typewriter and I’d turn into a novelist.Â Â Did I write medical thrillers?Â Nope.Â I wrote love stories.Â I wrote about spies and cops and newspaper reporters.Â I wrote about Vietnam vets and English gentlemen and cat burglars.Â Oh yeah, I did write about a doctor here and there, but that was the exception.
Mostly, I wrote about other professions.Â Professions that I thought were a lot more interesting than mine.Â
What? you may ask.Â Medicine’s fascinating!Â It’s life and death!Â But the truth is, when it’s your job, you forget that outsiders find it fascinating.Â You just go to work every morning, do a few physicals, maybe save a life here and there,Â and then you go home and cook dinner.Â Ho hum.Â Any profession, when it’s yours, starts to feel ordinary.
I rememberÂ hearing an account of a space shuttle landing.Â The President was there, along with his Secret Service entourage,Â to greet the returning astronauts.Â After all the formalities were over, the astronauts crowded around the Secret Service guysÂ because theyÂ wanted to know all about their excitingÂ jobs protecting the President.Â And the Secret Service guys were anxious to hear about the astronauts’ far more exciting jobs in space.Â Each groupÂ thought the OTHER GUYS had theÂ more interesting life.
That’s the way it is with doctors, too.Â We think that lawyers live inÂ exciting John Grisham novels while we’re stuck in hospitals poking our fingers into unsavory orifices.Â
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.Â My literary agent gave me a tip that I’ve since taken to heart:Â “Readers want to know secrets.Â They want to know what only you can tell them.Â TheÂ things doctors don’t want outsiders to know, the lurid tales from behind the OR doors.Â You may thinkÂ these details areÂ all boring, but others will be fascinated.”
She was partly right.Â People are fascinated byÂ the details — but only some of them.Â Â I don’t think they really want to hear about the drudgery of medical charting or the phone calls to insurance companies.Â What they care about are details that have inherent drama to them.
And that’s my job as a novelist — to separate theÂ dry details from the really cool details.Â 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.Â If it’s necessary to the plot, then you have to find a way to spark a reader’s interest.Â In GRAVITY, for instance, I have a section about the way an astronaut prepares for a space walk.Â It’s importantÂ 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 hoursÂ in a special room whileÂ your body adjusts to a lower air pressure.Â And then, when you do leave the spacecraft, you have to make sure all your safety backups are working.Â 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.Â Suddenly that emergency tether becomes very, very important to remember.Â And a lot more interesting.
But what if you’re not a doctor or a cop?Â What if you’re, say, a waiter or a dishwasher in a restaurant?Â Then I suggest you pick up a copy of one of Anthony Bourdain’s books.Â Start with Kitchen Confidential.Â Tell me if he doesn’t make the restaurant businessÂ a wacky, utterly fascinating universe.Â What if you’re a schoolteacher?Â Think about all the interesting things you’ve discovered about teenagers.Â Taxi drivers andÂ airline mechanics and petroleum engineers all know secrets we’d love to know about.Â Once I met a geologist who really wanted to write a murder mystery, but he complained that heÂ didn’t know anything about police work.
Who needs cop expertise? I told him.Â You’re a geologist!Â There’s got to beÂ a geolgoical mysteryÂ that you alone can come up with.Â Surely you can find something interesting about shale!
Perhaps you really can’t find anything about your job that’s interesting.Â Or maybe you’re a lawyer and you hate, just hate your job.Â Are you still forced to write about what you know?
Absolutely not.Â Then you should write about what you want to know.
After writing four medical thrillers, I was tired of the genre.Â I have a lot of other interests, archaeology and history among them.Â And every book has been about a subject that I was fascinated by.Â In THE SINNER, it was leprosy and nuns.Â In MEPHISTO CLUB, it was about the ancient lore of demons.Â In THE SURGEON, I explored the history of human sacrifice.Â 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.Â Or maybe there’s some subject you’d love to explore.Â Throw yourself into it, no matter how obscure it may be.Â LearnÂ hieroglyphics.Â Read up on tree rings.Â If you find theseÂ subjects exciting, the chances are, you can make them exciting in a novel as well.
Just leave out the boring stuff.