Write about what you know – but only if it enthralls

Very early in my novel-writing life I was told to always write about what I knew, that way at least some of the facts will be based on experience and reality. Lately I’ve been reading about the downside to this – novelists who write about the publishing industry.
I’m sure that publishing, like any other commercial, industrial or social sector, has its high spots, but generally they are reserved for the fairly tight clique that inhabits those areas. There is also a very popular writing genre involving celebrities and the world they live in. Footballers, film stars etc. have a cache that seems to excite those readers who want to delve into the lives of the glamorous and wealthy, but novelists don’t fit that category. If someone has an abiding interest in authors, literary agents, publishers, printers and booksellers then, to me, it denotes strange, almost stalking, behaviour.
Crime fiction – a genre I lean towards – does not escape. JK Rowling, a multi-millionaire based on the brilliant Harry Potter series, wrote The Silkworm. It is, as I expected, well structured, well written and has a wonderful cadence to carry the plot forward. Where it falls down is that the central ‘character’ is a dead writer, and the convoluted plot is who killed him, why and when. As the plot revolves around the deceased’s latest unpublished work the storyline ambles through a host of literary-connected characters, none of whom I found particularly enthralling or interesting!
David Mitchell, a well-respected and successful author, has penned the rambling The Body Clocks, which takes the reader on a meandering journey to, among other places, Hay-on-Wye, home of possibly the world’s most famous literary festival. By famous I mean ‘well known’; I don’t mean it’s the best by a long way.
These people are taking the well-worn adage too far. They are clearly writing what they know about, but in doing so they are demonstrating a shallowness and narrow-mindedness in their lifestyles. The answer is to go out and do more research. Isn’t that what Google is for?
I write the Simon Jardine series of crime thrillers about newspapers, music, the 70s’ drug scene, journalists and provincial life in general. I don’t do ‘police procedurals’ because I am not sufficiently knowledgeable, but I admire those who are. I am convinced that Val McDermid, could carry out a full autopsy; Stephen Booth is perfectly capable of handling the role of Chief Constable of Derbyshire; my friend Mark Wright (Heartman and the soon-to-be published All Through The Night) knows all there is to know about racism in the 1960s and especially Bristol; and if there is ever a handbook required for the American FBI, there are a host of fiction writers who could step in.
I like to feel that crime and thriller writers take their readers into worlds where they are fascinated by newly discovered facts, chunks of interesting history, and characters for whom they have an immediate empathy. The minutiae of the literary publishing universe is just not that interesting.
In a bookish environment that encompasses so many differing styles, genres and talents, I am a mere novice stumbling along in search of the right words and phrases, but I am also an avid reader, so I want my authors to live up to my high expectations. That, necessarily, means writing about what I know, but I hope that what I know is a lot more interesting than a single industry or profession.

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