Photo credit: Brian Rozman Photography
“Write what you know.”
Platitudes. No fun. Yet...
You’re gonna write what you know no matter what you write. And it’s not going to come out the way you think it is. It’s not a matter of writing about science because you’re a scientist, or setting your book on a farm because you grew up on one. It’s about taking pieces of the life you’ve lived, almost always subconsciously, and discovering you’ve put them in the story long after you’ve written the end.
The rough draft for Unbury Carol
was written in a 15-day explosion of some 5,000 words a day, a gloriously manic run. The rewrites, of course, took forever. That’s how it goes for us pansters, those of us who write without an outline, by the seat of our pants. But even during the (extensive!) rewrites, I didn’t recognize the relationship between the book I was working on and the life I had led thus far. In fact, I didn’t unearth any links at all until I was tasked with writing the very essay you’re reading now.
But here I am, seeing them for the first time.
Write what you know.
Yeah, I guess we do that after all...
Take James Moxie for example. Just take his name. I’ve been in a band for some 18 years with the friends I made back when I was 10 years old. We got serious about recording and touring around the same time I tried to write my first book. I “failed” at writing four novels over a 10-year period, “failed” meaning I just didn’t finish them. But one of those books was called Moxie Bravo
(a western title to be sure, but it wasn’t any part western) and probably because I didn’t finish it, my bandmate Mark Owen suggested we use the title for the newest (at the time) High Strung album. Years later, I’m riding shotgun to some crazed muse exploding 5000 words a day, writing a western that might be horror but is probably something else altogether, and I need a name for my leading man. My mind drifts to my band... my best friends... the albums we made...
Good. Great. Let’s use it.
Write what you know.
Take Smoke. The tin-legged lunatic hit man who follows Moxie on the Trail. My main man Smoke. I went through a particularly broke period of about 10 years in which I was returning cans for a sort of daily allowance and (really) living off the kindness of others. Somewhere in that stretch of time — which was fantastic, one of the most electrifying runs of my life — I was meandering through a grocery store, unable to afford much of what I saw. In an effort to have fun with the moment, I let my imagination go, started walking stiff-legged, like an awkward giant, as if the shelves were a cityscape around me. I had one of those long grill lighters on me, a red one, who knows why, and I started flicking it on and off, on and off, as if I was breathing fire, setting that city aflame. But why stiff-legged, I wondered? Maybe the giant’s legs were hurt. Or maybe there was something inside them. Or maybe he/I wasn’t a giant after all.
It’s hard for me to fully commit to this. To admit that this is where the title of one of my books might’ve come from.
It sounds like a silly little moment here, but holy shit was this a revelation for me at the time. I saw Smoke in his entirety, thinning hair, a half haircut, no hat, no gun, tin legs. And I saw him going after Moxie, too.
So the band, best friends, being broke and freaked out in a grocery store...
Write what you know.
But not exactly. The echo of what you know. Your life’s shadow.
Here’s a weird one. Totally weird. Take the title of the book.
, to me, had a ring to it. A roll. But where does that rhythm come from? What makes you think these couple words roll while others don’t? Maybe it’s a familiarity with the syllables themselves, the phrase as a musical measure, rather than a series of words. But what had I heard before that could’ve been the blueprint for the title Unbury Carol
Or... well... yeah.
My dad is a big basketball fan and for that so am I. He grew up in the ’50s and I grew up in the ’80s, and we’re always talking about basketball players from all eras. Especially the ones with great names. Like Clyde Frazier and World B. Free. Tiny Archibald and Kareem. But there was this one fella we both loved for his name and his name alone, the way it felt like you were juggling jelly beans as you spoke it, a center for the Warriors named Joe Barry Carroll.
It’s hard for me to fully commit to this. To admit that this is where the title of one of my books might’ve come from. A ghost of Carroll’s name.
But you know what?
You write what you know. Whether you mean to do it or not.
It doesn’t matter where the ideas come from. For Unbury Carol
it was a blend of band, best friends, being broke, dad, and a thousand other things. For the next one it’ll be other buried elements, things I haven’t thought of in years. What matters is that you’re open to your own history, to the life you’ve led. Let’s say we’ve got a doctor who wants to write a book. So she does. She’ll probably be surprised to find that the book she writes isn’t about medicine at all, but rather the two young girls who will resemble two she once knew. And it probably won’t strike her until much later, years, when talking about the finished book, when she says at last, a drink in hand, “Dude, I based my entire book on the life I’ve led. I didn’t mean to do it, but I ended up writing what I know.”
÷ ÷ ÷
is an internationally bestselling, Bram Stoker Award-nominated American author and one of two singer/songwriters for the rock band The High Strung. His debut novel Bird Box
was published in the United Kingdom and United States in 2014 to much critical acclaim. His latest novel, Unbury Carol
, publishes in April 2018. He lives in Ferndale, Michigan, with his best friend/soulmate, Allison Laakko, and their pets Frankie, Valo, Dewey, Marty, and the fish.