I thought I would write a bit about how our backgrounds can influence our writing. The old cliché says, “Write what you know,” but I can’t help but feel if everyone did that, literature as a whole would be shortchanged. The whole point of writing and reading is to imagine things you haven’t experienced before, to explore new worlds, concepts and personalities.
That said, it does help to be writing about something to which you have some sort of connection. Arthur Conan Doyle was not a professional detective himself, but his medical school training and work experiences enabled him to imagine in fantastic realism the intricate details of those famous fictional cases. Did you know that while in med school, Doyle took a position as a ship’s surgeon on a whaling vessel that sailed to Greenland?
As a marine biologist, I’ve never even seen a blue whale (although I’ve been in the water with other kinds of whales), much less tagged and swam with one, but in my new thriller/mystery WIRED KINGDOM I’ve managed to do just that. Having a foundation in marine science enables me to write with some semblance of authority, and to incorporate a few technical details that add realism to the story. It’s not exactly what I would call, ‘write what you know’ but more like ‘write what you can convincingly get away with.’ Real life can be a bit…well, mundane at times, right, so the point is perhaps to take the familiar and make it unfamiliar, to infuse our sense of normalcy with an element of excitement.
But exactly how this element is introduced is critical. The devil is in the details, as they say, and to be able to negotiate those details a writer needs some background and experiences to draw upon. Sure, research helps, but there’s a big difference between someone researching something they know nothing about for the first time and researching based on past experience and knowledge to clarify details.
With research based on past experience, anything becomes not only possible, but convincingly, even alarmingly so. A seemingly random killing in a small town that exposes the strange interrelationships of its residents, perhaps, or a whale tagged with a webcam that films a murder at sea. Anything that expands upon a writer’s background and experiences in such a way that it fills the story with convincing detail and vivid realism. For me, some of the background that would find its way into WIRED KINGDOM, kiDNApped, and the upcoming SOLAR ISLAND began with my personal experiences of scuba diving around the world.
So while there certainly doesn’t need to be a direct connection between the writer and the work, most of the time there will be some past history with at least one element of the story. We’ve all heard of M.D.’s writing medical thrillers and lawyers writing legal thrillers, but there are successful examples of these types of books written by non-professionals, too. The goal of the novel first and foremost is to entertain; everything else is a distant second.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know your thoughts.
Since my debut novel (thriller Wired Kingdom) prominently features a whale, I decided to focus this post on whales. I’ll share a few of my personal experiences with them as well as what made me want to write about them in my book.
Allow me to begin by providing a brief description of the story:
When a blue whale tagged with a web-cam designed with stolen defense technology broadcasts a brutal murder at sea as part of a television nature program, Special Agent Tara Shores finds herself navigating an ocean of manipulation and deceit in a deadly race to reach the 100-ton creature roaming the Pacific before an unknown killer can destroy the digital evidence it carries.
You can view a book trailer for the novel here:
So, at its heart, Wired Kingdom is a whodunit murder mystery where a whale harbors a key piece of evidence in the case. In some early drafts of the story I even had the web-cam on different kinds of animals, such as a shark, but there was something about whales that just made the most sense. They’re big, formidable animals if one needs to confront one, but they are also beautiful, majestic creatures that have come back from the brink of extinction after nearly being hunted from the Earth. Many people feel a certain empathy for them, a sentiment that figures prominently in the novel.
As someone with a degree in marine science, I have spent time formally studying whales and the environment in which they live. But reading about them alone doesn’t begin to do justice to these mysterious creatures. To truly appreciate them, one needs to see them in their natural environment, which I have been fortunate enough to do on several occasions throughout my life. Below I will share a few videos I’ve taken of whales in different parts of the world.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaIhSVrr52k This is a video of a humpback whale in Hawaii. I took this while on a whale watching boat called the Navatek, on the island of Oahu. Can you see the calf by her mother’s side? You can hear the screams of the excited passengers when the whale breaches, or jumps out of the water. No one is exactly sure why whales breach. It may be just for the fun of it, or perhaps to shake loose parasites.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9Dc2j844mY This clip shows a gray whale off Los Angeles, which I took from another whale watch out of Marina del Rey (where, incidentally, part of the story for Wired Kingdom is set). Grays are famous for their annual migration from Alaska to Mexico, where they give birth.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_mPHwGLpDo This is a special clip, not for what you can see, but for what you can hear. My wife shot this when we were scuba diving on a shipwreck in Hawaii (yes, that’s me diving in the video). The sounds you can hear are the songs of humpback whales! We could hear them all around us throughout the dive, although we never saw one.
Note that I don’t have any blue whale shots—I haven’t been lucky enough to see one of those in the wild—yet—but that’s part of what made them so alluring to me, and so worthy of being a main character in Wired Kingdom. That, and the fact that they are the largest animals ever to have lived on our planet.
These types of whale encounters have been a source of inspiration for me as I wrote Wired Kingdom, and which helped me to inject a dose of realism into the story’s pages. I hope that this post has stirred your imagination enough to make you want to learn more about whales for yourself!
Thanks for reading.