Friday, June 25, 2010

How Our Backgrounds Influence Our Writing: by Rick Chesler

I’d like to welcome Rick Chesler to Mystery Writing is Murder. Rick holds a Bachelor of Science in marine biology and has had a life-long interest in the ocean and its creatures. When not at work as an environmental project manager, he can be found scuba diving or traveling to research his next thriller idea. He currently lives in Honolulu, Hawaii with his wife, a cat and some fish. His book, Wired Kingdom, was released May 2010.

Wired KingdomFirst of all, thanks to Elizabeth Spann Craig for having me as a guest on Mystery Writing is Murder! 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 began with my personal experiences of scuba diving around the world. You can check out some of my diving videos here:

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.

I’d like to close by saying that I’m happy to answer any questions or to engage in further discussion in the comments section. Also, for those who’d like to find me or my book, here are my key links:

Author site WIRED KINGDOM book trailer Facebook fan page

Thanks again for having me!