Monthly Archives: April 2014

Ask the editor: Breaking the “write what you know” rule

Posted: April 7th, 2014 by Alan Rinzler @





Q: I have a terrific story to tell, but it didn’t actually happen to me. Is it possible to write with authenticity about something you haven’t experienced firsthand?

A: Many great books are written by authors who seem to have nothing in common with their character’s experiences. Different gender, culture, time in history, geographic location.

Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage, an amazing description of a bloody hand-to-hand combat and death during the infamous Civil War battle of Chancellorsville without ever having any experience in the military or violent conflict of any sort. The entire Civil War, in fact, occurred before he was born.

Henry James wrote Portrait of a Lady, though he was certainly nothing at all like Isabelle Archer, the spirited young American girl who inherits a lot of money and has a hard time dealing with the consequences.

Tom Robbins, despite bogus rumors to the contrary, doesn’t have hooves, or smell like a goat and dance about playing pipes in the hills of Greece, as happens in his excellent book Jitterbug Perfume, which features the goat god Pan.

Writing vicariously

Most of all, you need authentic passion for the story. Then, you need to plunge into the homework. Your research must be impeccable, every detail dead-on accurate. If you’re recreating an historical epoch, you should read profusely about it, and interview experts or participants if possible. If your story is from the perspective of someone completely different from you, find models and study them as closely as possible — in person, face-to-face.

You may find that your early drafts take you in unexpected directions. Stay flexible and true to the new world you’re creating.

Four writers on how they did it

I’ve worked with many authors who’ve written about something they haven’t experienced directly. Here are four writers and their responses to questions I sent each of them about how they did it.

Jillian Thomadsen is the author of the novel Infiltrate about an idealistic young Fixed Income Analyst at a major investment bank who tries to shift internal policies towards more altruistic long-term goals but finds herself increasingly drawn into a culture of greed and corruption.

Neville Frankel is the author of Bloodlines, a novel about how the struggle against apartheid nearly destroys a Jewish family in South Africa which engages in violent terrorism during the early years of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.

Kimberley Pettinger is the author of The Quantum Affair, a novel about a strong woman’s struggle for freedom and power in a high tech company with a revolutionary new computer.

David Tomlinson is the author of American Prayer, a novel about the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing in the context of race relations, religious faith, and local politics.

What sparked the passion that motivated you to write this book?

Jillian Thomadsen:

I was reading an article about the Occupy movement, and it seemed like an effort in futility.  How was sleeping in a park going to cause change? I started to think that one angry person working inside an investment bank could do more than hundreds of protesters chanting outside.  And from that moment, the idea of a person who infiltrates and takes down a company she despises started to take shape.

I wanted to write about income disparity, the quintessential American Dream, and the current economic climate in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008.  A Wall Street investment bank seemed like a fitting backdrop for telling this story and I knew it was an environment where people pushed ethical boundaries in pursuit of their personal ambitions for money and power.

Neville Frankel:

I had returned for the first time 38 years after my family had fled South Africa before the end of apartheid when a man I’d never met before threw his arms about me and whispered in my ear, “Welcome home, brother.” I was overwhelmed by the unexpected sense of having come home. That was the  moment when I realized I’d never really left my homeland behind, and had unresolved issues that needed to be addressed.

I was so struck by the fact that the young South African people I met in their early twenties really had no historical perspective on what had happened in their country before Nelson Mandela was elected President. This despite the fact that every one of them had been deeply affected by apartheid, whether they were the children of victims or perpetrators. I thought that a novel about their country’s revolution told through the eyes of fictional characters – blacks, whites, Jews – could be a great way to provide that perspective.

Kimberly Pettinger:

I had a hard-earned eight-week sabbatical at the company where I worked. But I’d just had my second child and was sleep deprived most of the time, so there was no way I was going for a vacation to Paris or anywhere else for that matter.  I was frustrated that my life was rather dull and my career had plateaued.

I’ve always been intrigued with females in positions of power. Who were they? How did they get to the top? What struggles did they have?  In the corporate environment, females – especially technical leaders – are rare and exceptional.  I was also interested in playing out the idea of the next generation of computing which would likely accelerate a major shift in society. And I liked the idea of balancing the corporate intrigue with a love story.

David Tomlinson:

Running on the treadmill in my home office, I was looking out the window, listening to music, watching the sunlight hit the street, and had this image of a guy running along the railroad tracks, lit up by this same light. That guy turned out to be one of main characters in a new story, a Choctaw Indian named Dean Goodnight, who works for the Oklahoma County Public Defender.

I wanted to write a literary novel about the Oklahoma City bombing: an ambitious, political, heartfelt book set in the place where I grew up. And I hoped that people could see and understand and wind up caring about complex, difficult, prickly, larger-than-life characters who at first glance can be tough to love.

What kind of homework did you do to write about what you didn’t know firsthand or hadn’t experienced yourself?

Jill Thomadsen:

I kept abreast of news articles and stories about the 2008 financial crisis, the bursting of the US housing bubble caused by collapsing mortgage lending standards. I asked myself if could it happen all over again, but this time with unregulated and fraudulent student loans.  Since this never happened, and it isn’t a disguised memoir or anything I’ve observed or experienced directly, I allowed myself some creative license as well.

Neville Frankel:

I had to read books on history and  politics, South African fiction, the reports on the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. I also made three trips to various parts of South Africa, some remote, to speak with many, many people about their experiences under apartheid and to write accurately about the geography and natural beauty of the country.

Kimberly Pettinger:

My experience working within a large multi-national corporation and the inner workings of that machine allowed me to write about it authentically.  The one component I didn’t have access to was the underworld of computing.  I did some research online and just imagined what it would be like for one of my characters.

David Tomlinson:

I read a dozen or so books on basketball, race relations, faith, local politics, and the justice system, taking copious notes, reworking my outline the entire time. I interviewed an old college roommate, a Choctaw Indian, who used to investigate capital cases for the public defender’s office, who gave me insight in Dean Goodnight’s life and day job. You, Alan, suggested that I read Phil Jackson’s “Sacred Hoops”, which is fantastic. And my daughter started playing basketball around this time so I spent some extra time watching the coach interact with his players and soaking up the sounds and textures of the gym.

One of the characters in this story is a physical therapist named Aura, a black woman, who winds up having to care for a paralyzed, bigoted patient named Cecil. My wife is a physician, and so if I had questions about medication, terminology, or complications due to Cecil’s condition, she pointed me in the right direction.

It took four years to complete the novel. I felt myself having so much empathy and understanding for my characters, while living the arc of this story from each particular character’s point of view. So in a way, by the time I was finished, I actually had experienced it all.


What about you?

Have you written a story about a character with whom you had little in common? We’d love to hear more about it.

What was the original source of your passion to write the story? What kind of homework did you do? What was the most difficult part of writing your book?

We welcome any problems, successes, experience or advice on breaking the rule to write only “what you know”.

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Be Generous with Detail

First Edition Design eBook Publishers

Posted at Editors Only on Monday, March 31, 2014

Present information that you’ve gathered to stimulate reader interest.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Successful paragraphs/passages/segments/parcels in articles require heavy-duty work. To write them so that potential readers care enough to actually read what you’ve prepared demands prior thought and preparation. It calls for information gathering. It begs for details.

I’ve chosen several excerpts for you to peruse, so to arouse consideration about what, besides good writing, it took to realize them.

Dateline: Moore, Oklahoma

From The New York Times, May 27, 2013, a story by Michael Shear:

“…Mr. Obama took a brief walk through the remains of what once was a thriving suburb south of Oklahoma City. American flags, flapping in the stiff winds of the warm spring day, were among the rubble.

“But the piles also contained reminders of the lives torn apart by winds that topped 200 miles per hour as the twister cut a roughly 20-mile path of destruction through town.

“There were 2012 yearbooks from the Plaza Towers School and a workbook titled ‘Jamal’s Surprise.’ There were several waterlogged encyclopedias and a pink baby doll stroller. In another pile was a purple plastic toy camcorder and a child’s pink parka. Every few feet, crumpled cars blocked the way, and twisted metal littered yards that once had lawns. The only trees remaining had no bark and no leaves.”

The writer spotted particulars in the rubble that made devastation specific, that addressed lives interrupted and possibly lost, that spelled tragedy, that carefully put the President into another consoler-in-chief moment. To pass along such an experience, a reporter must search for the details that travel readily and clearly from a distant scene to the printed page and the reader’s eyes, mind, and heart. Shear did so, not by overplaying his hand as collector of facts but by selecting from his notes sufficient details to frame a circumscribed picture of human grief, one scoped large enough for a far-off reader to grasp and understand what had happened in Moore but not so large as to emotionally overwhelm him or her. The power of details.

Family Time

A column in National Geographic Traveler, prepared for the June/July 2013 issue by Laura Willard, is a short one about “Kids Go ‘Round the World in Balboa Park.” She recommends:

“1. Jump on a century-old carousel, with original European hand-carved animals, for a five-minute whirl. 2. See how your face changes as you age, and peer through a microscope at real human cells at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center…. 8. Enjoy a free concert from one of the largest outdoor pipe organs in the world at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion on Sundays.”

Willard’s list of ten activities that a family can enjoy at inviting Balboa Park has been thoughtfully collected and then ever-so-briefly but specifically offered to the magazine’s travel-enthused readers. If San Diego is a possible destination, those readers who choose to go there now have ten things to do while spending time with family (or alone) in that famous preserve. The writing took very little time, I’d guess, but the information took care and time to gather. Without that information, of course, there is no column worth reading. The power of details.

Dateline: Dhaka, Bangaladesh

From USA Today, May 17–19, 2013, a story by Calum MacLeod focused first on 20-year-old Sheuli Akhter, a garment worker:

“Her mother, Ranjana, was found recently sobbing near the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory where her daughter worked, days after the eight-story complex collapsed and killed 1,127 people. Viewing dozens of corpses a day, Ranjana … still hoped her daughter had somehow survived and would join her for the 10-hour bus journey back to their village.

“The victims retrieved daily from the debris were crushed and unrecognizable in the South Asian heat.

“‘I am looking for her body, but they are all decomposed now. It’s getting harder to identify,’ says Ranjama, tears falling from her eyes.”

MacLeod located a mother still seeking but coming to realize that her daughter is among the victims. He used that mother-daughter tragedy as a humanizing detail to get at the message he sought to impart to his readers, which comes in the paragraph that followed:

“The scale of the mismanagement and breadth of the human tragedies in Bangladesh powerfully illustrated to the world in an instant what years of abuse, inhumane conditions and unthinkable danger could not: The workers in Third World countries take enormous risks and desperate measures to earn a living in Bangladeshi-owned companies that produce clothing for Western retailers.

“At the end of this global production line stand millions of American shoppers whose favorite companies and brands … use Bangladesh as a launching pad for the goods consumers crave.”

The human detail tells, shows, and sells the point that the reporter is striving to make: we’re helping to sustain a system that causes the sort of tragedy we’re suddenly sad about, so what are we — individually and collectively — ready to do, if anything, to bring about change? The power of detail.

Return Engagement

The New Yorker‘s eminent music critic, Alex Ross, wrote in the June 10, 2013, issue of the magazine about the return-from-injury appearance of conductor James Levine with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Here is his opening paragraph:

“At the beginning of the Prelude to Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin,’ an A-major triad, evoking the Holy Grail, swells gently in the violins, oboes, and flutes, with four solo violinists playing silvery harmonics. For the orchestra, it is a scarily exposed moment: the violins must maintain purity of intonation in a high register, while the winds must materialize before the audience’s ears, with no audible splutter of attack. The musicians of the Metropolitan Opera, performing the Prelude at the outset of a concert on May 19th at Carnegie Hall, had no trouble meeting those requirements. But the sonority had an uncommon aura — something of the magical quality that Charles Baudelaire, in his 1861 essay on Wagner, described as a ‘wide diffusion of light,’ an ‘immensity with no other décor but itself.’ Moreover, the chord seemed to be in motion, like a crystal turning in space as light shone through it. Wagner, whose 200th birthday arrived three days later, could not have asked for a lovelier gift, in whatever region of the hereafter he may be found.”

Ross ascribed that moment in performance to conductor Levine, back after a two-year absence. “Perhaps,” he noted, “the musicians would have sounded the same if another conductor had been on the podium, but I doubt that the playing would have had such extreme concentration, such meditative intensity.”

This critic, of course, brings to all his assignments ears attuned to every note, bar, accent, solo responsibility, and ensemble development. That’s an inherent and trained part of talent he contributes to his job of evaluating music, and he can follow through, fortunately, with intelligent writing that makes the case. But look at the knowledge that peeks through, thanks to material he chose to construct his paragraph and what follows: of score, of instrumental capabilities, of Wagner, of “Lohengrin,” of James Levine, of the Met Orchestra. Some of that knowledge has become a given for Ross; he has it at his beck and call. But his research must have included going back to the score and also hunting up historic details about Wagner and “Lohengrin” (the Baudelaire quote, for instance). Ross obviously knew what he needed to prove his argument. The power of detail.

I have at least five more examples that I wanted to use in this month’s column, but I’ve run out of space. Detail is a subject worth recycling. I will again. In the meantime, don’t stint on detail. Be generous. Don’t overwhelm, but be generous. Be wisely selective, but be generous.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.