What You Know

What You Know

Most have heard this advice about writing: Write what you know.

For new writers, especially younger ones, this is a confusing bit of advice. You want to write a mystery novel involving a murder set in Rome. Your mind is full of the plugs you’ll have: “International intrigue!” “Globe-trotting Sleuth!” But, then you heard someone say you should write what you know. CRASH! BURN! You’ve never been to Rome. You’ve never committed a murder. You have no experience in crime detection and investigation. Huh?

Here’s the truth. “Write what you know,” is a blow-off line. Incomplete. Inaccurate. It’s the advice you get from someone who just wants to cut you off at the knees. Why? Because you know a lot more than you think. Or–well–you will know a lot more. Follow me on this.


SettingOkay, you haven’t been to Rome. Big deal. Maps, Google, your browser, the library, bookstores, and other resources can get you all the information you need to create a setting sketch and write believable scenes set in Rome. Some writers use those travel guides they find in bookstores that provide details on restaurants, sights, events, and customs of a place like Rome or other cities.

The US State Department has information online for potential travelers for almost every destination on the planet. Here’s the link to information on the Holy See (Vatican City) in Rome. It also provides access to the CIA World Factbook for further information on the Holy See. If you want in-depth information, the State Department and the CIA are great resources. They are free. I don’t know if you can get access outside the US.

I used Google Maps and Street View as I worked through settings in Sudden Mission. I’d track where my characters would be on Google Maps, then drop down to Street View to see what they would see as they went down a specific street or highway. Near St. Louis, MO,  is a town named Edwardsville, IL. I know nothing about this town. I studied the maps carefully, looking for a route around St. Louis and across the Mississippi River. Edwardsville was a good find. I had my characters going up a residential street there just as I dumped a plague of frogs on them.

This image on the right is that street in Edwardsville, IL. This kind of tool makes it possible to describe a place accurately and realistically. I just added frogs. I used the scene to describe what happened in the novel and it added realism and authenticity. You’d never know I’ve never been to Edwardsville. Ever.

I wrote Sudden Mission in 2012, so I had to use Google Maps with Adobe Flash (Bad JuJu) installed on my system. When I didn’t need it any more, I took Flash off. Fortunately, Flash is no longer required. Most browsers support the protocols to render Street View correctly.

Setting Sketch and Research Section

The setting sketch provided in Scrivener’s templates can contain a lot of details you gather from the above resources.

In the research section of your project binder, you can add folders and documents, then cut and paste entire web pages or just links and references. This is handy. You can refer back to the items in your research section to verify details or facts. Keep links related to your work in progress from the US State Department and CIA World Factbook in folders here. Don’t be afraid to use the Factbook. It’s paid for by the US taxpayer and published for your benefit. As for Google Maps, take screen shots of your key places and save them in your research section.

Now, as for the murder. Do some research on crime scene investigation (not by watching TV). You want to avoid the CSI Effect. Research the law, police procedures, crime scene and evidence collection, evidentiary processes, custody of evidence, and anything else relevant. Since you set your crime in Rome, you’ll also want to check out law enforcement cooperation and investigation across international boundaries. Much of this information is found online with some searching. Here’s a Wikipedia link to get you started.

When you find something, dump the link, page, information into a document in your research section.

The key to remember is that nothing is ever as simple or straightforward as it might at first seem.

Oh fun, you say.

Keep writing.





I mentioned last week that Scrivener has templates for characters and settings to help you keep track of details.

Selecting a projectWhen you set up your project you choose the kind of project it will be. In this image I selected Fiction, and i have the choice of Scrivener setting up a n0vel, a novel with parts, or a short story. When I select novel, Scrivener sets up the basic format for manuscript and paperback layouts, as well as the front matter (title pages, cover, copyright). It even sets up a folder for Novel Projectresearch, where you can keep notes, references, and other material you will need as you go along. In the second image, I show the chapters and a few scenes and how to set up the work area. Here, I used the structure of the chapter/scene in the layout to create my basic outline. Each scene has a brief description of what would happen at that point.

At the bottom of the column on the left, there are templates for the character sketch and setting sketch. These are basic sketches and designed to give you a place to keep details of character and setting. Since my first two novels are not historical, I didn’t need Charactersextensive setting sketches. For the second novel, I used a lot of online resources, maps and building plans for the Washington, DC, locations.

Character, though, was something I spent more time developing. The sketch Scrivener provided was a great start to fleshing out my characters. I’ve since figured out a more dynamic method of character development, but I still use the sketches in Scrivener to keep track of details. That’s important as you go from one book to another and carry forward characters.

SettingAs mentioned, I didn’t make extensive use of the setting sketch. However, it is a good outline to keep handy if you’re working in a specific, rich, and detailed setting, or more than one setting. I spent more time on Google, Google Maps, satellite images, and other resources and would make my description before moving on. In Sudden Mission, that worked best because I didn’t intend for the characters to return to those sites later. Not practical filling out a dozen or more setting sketches for one time use.

However, in Nasty Leftovers, I did have my characters spend a lot of time in Washington, DC. I probably should have used setting sketches. They could have helped clear up some confusion in the editing process. Still, the imagery of an empty, toxic, DC was not hard to describe.

In book number 3 of this series, I’m pretty much laying waste to North Carolina. I just need to remember which bridges we’re blowing up. Also, in this series, I created this community vaguely on the east side of Raleigh, NC. I’m purposely trying to keep it vague and unidentifiable. I’m not sure why, but if I’m cornered, I’ll probably come up with something.

Keep writing.






Scrivener LogoI use Scrivener for all my writing.

My first experience with Scrivener was back in 2012, when I was getting ready to NaNoWriMo my first novel, Sudden Mission. I had recently moved from Windows to Mac and needed a solid writing tool. I didn’t want to spend the cash to get Microsoft Office for the Mac and I did just retire from more than 20 years of supporting, teaching, and hating MS Word. Yes, I hate MS Word. Sorry.

I digress. So, I’ll digress a bit more.

You see, I started playing around with word processors back in the early 1980’s. I had access at the time to a KayPro CP/M machine and learned to use Perfect Writer and WordStar. When I got my KayPro, I became an expert on WordStar, using the WordStar codes, and hacking the application to make it perform better. Back then, there were no spelling or grammar checkers, until some creative types figured out how to add those tools to  WordStar.


That was just about the time I moved to a DOS-based Personal Computer (PC). WordStar tried to hang on but the company died. Then, WordPerfect showed up. A company out of Utah created it and it was a very decent word processor. Add-on grammar and spelling checkers started to show up in droves. I messed with a bunch of them and learned a lot in the process.

Then Microsoft created Word. By this point, many places had invested a lot of time and money into WordPerfect and scripting processes in that application. Legal shops led the charge here. I learned to script in WordPefect and created some pretty impressive tools this way. But, Microsoft owned the operating system (DOS at the time). Keep in mind that at this time, a hard drive was not a standard item on PCs. Most PCs in offices were dual floppy disk. So, you booted your PC and ran your programs with the disk in the A: drive, and saved you work on the B: drive floppy. WordPerfect did this for a couple of years when Word showed up. I rarely had to support anyone who lost all their work using WordPerfect. When Word showed up, disasters happened. Word would, arbitrarily hang or quit in the middle of a session. All the work to that point would be gone. Even, in some early versions and when someone saved often (that was like a six-keystroke operation then), the save file on the B: floppy would disappear. Microsoft did nothing about this issue until after about version 4.0.


Somehow, Word began to dominate business word processing. Not because it was the best. WordPerfect was a better, more capable word processor. Then Windows showed up. Now, Microsoft owned Windows and Office. So, they made sure that all the support routines for Office products loaded into memory in Windows, so it seemed that Word and its fellow programs ran faster. But, Windows was slower because of it. Without office, Windows ran great and WordPerfect ran great. There were still times when Word would die in the middle of your work and your file would go away and that was a risk until Windows 95 and WordPerfect was seeing its last days.

We got networked and WordPerfect got sold to a couple different companies and then died out. So, now we have MS Office with Word as the sole word processor. Others tried to take the thunder, but failed. I converted most of my training and scripting processes to Word and that worked until a new version of Word came out and I had to change everything again. Nothing in Word ever seemed to stay put. In one version, Microsoft had the mail merge function flawless. In the next, it was a complete disaster. Things got moved around and much of the update training I did focused on showing users where Microsoft hid their favorite functions.

And, it never got better. For me, anyway.

Move to Mac

When I moved to the Mac after I retired, things changed for me. I used Pages. Gosh, is a very nice little word processor. A lot like the old Word Perfect, but with more page layout capability. I use Pages for letters and short documents. But, getting a large, complex document done in Pages wasn’t really practical. So, I went looking.

Scrivener was the best $50 I ever spent. I can import old projects into it and (with a little preparation) it will break it into chapters, scenes, and have it ready for work. For a new project, it makes me structure it and work in scenes. I really like this. When I want to work on a specific part of a project, I just go to that part. The work on that part does not affect the rest of the project. I can move things around. And best of all, I can compile the resulting project into a Word document or a PDF, or compile for upload to Kindle, Kobo, Nook, or print on demand. Compiling, especially for e-book or print publication, is probably the most complex part of using Scrivener. I spent days on Sudden Mission and Nasty Leftovers getting things just right.

Editing and Revisions

After you complete the first draft, Scrivener helps with spelling and grammar, if you want. But I find Scrivener makes the revision and editing process better because you don’t have to wade through the entire document to find a certain scene. You select the scene you want to work in and go for it. If you use the synopsis feature, you can quickly find a scene by checking the brief description in the synopsis.

Novel templates for Scrivener have reformatted scene and character sketch templates you can use. I find the character sketches are handy when I need to check my notes on a character to make sure he/she is behaving consistent to my description. The novel templates also automatically set up the front matter, cover and other folders so all you need to do is enter the information.

Other templates pre-format for short story/fiction, or even academic research papers. I wish I had Scrivener when I was in college.

So, now I use Scrivener for just about all my writing, except maybe a letter or something like that. It was well worth the time to learn and well worth the price. If you are serious about writing, you should check it out.

Keep writing.


First Day

First Daynanowrimo_2016_webbadge_participant-200

Today is the first day of NaNoWriMo 2016. That’s National Novel Writing Month to those of you not paying attention.

I started at midnight. I joined fellow writers at Denny’s on North Division in Spokane just a little before midnight on Halloween, set up the laptop and got ready.

Apple crisp and coffee. Check.

Scrivener up with new document. Check.

Power. Check.

Our municipal liaison got everyone ready and counted down. At 12:00 midnight, we all started.

I wrote for about an hour and got a little more than 600 words into the new first draft. Then I packed it up and drove home. Had I not just spent the day getting ready for Halloween, spending the evening wondering if we would get any trick-or-treaters and playing with the grandkids that did show up, I might have stayed longer.

As it is, I had an early errand. Once done, we got home and I got busy again. So, I got a total of 1,883 words. Nice start for the first day.

If you do the math, you realize you can average about 1,667 words per day for 30 days you’ll have 50,000 words. But, November has holidays and other interruptions that will tear into your word count quickly if you don’t put a little more on your daily word count. In the past, I tried to stick to 2,200 words. That helps cover those days where you just have too much to do with the family.

Like Thanksgiving.

Black Friday.


You get the idea.

If you stumble one or two days and fall behind, know that with some determination and grit, you can get back in the race. Try to keep your goals sustainable. Write on!

Keep writing.

P.S. By the way, today, November 1, is National Author’s Day. Yipee!



The story element What is a critical part of a story. Who is important, but without What, there really isn’t any story. The What generally amounts to an event, a romance, an accident, a speech, an election, or an apocalypse.

what-arrowNormally, What is your plot in the novel or short story and is what your character will focus on. You tie your  protagonist to the What, the plot, and the story proceeds through to a resolution.

If you read book blurbs, those paragraphs on the back of paperbacks or the inside flap of a dust jacket, you get a feel for the What. Well-written blurbs usually provide a clue to the main character and the What they will face. Since I mention “well-written,” that indicates there are poorly written … but, I digress.

A lot goes into What. An event, say a wedding, takes a lot of planning and coordination (think Father of the Bride). The event beginning brings in the planner, they select the venue, they redecorate the venue, they select colors, they select flowers, the bride chooses the gown, and all the other details. And, it takes up to a year to carry out.

How you structure that and how your character(s) behave and interact in it can make the story a classic comedy, a bloody thriller, a murder mystery, or an intense drama. Just for a mental exercise, take the movie mentioned above and envision it as a murder mystery. The What doesn’t actually change much, but the characters involved and how they behave do. Significantly.

In my own mental reboot of Father of the Bride, the wedding planner ends as a gruesome murder victim. Of course, the father is the prime suspect, but several of the characters have motive. I even have the groom as a witness to the murder, but he dies horribly just before the ceremony where he planned to name the murderer.

So, you see, the What is a mundane thing. How you, as the writer, treat it is what makes the story.

In my post a couple of weeks ago, we talked about the lead. Who and What are two elements almost always included in the lead. As readers, we care most about who did what, or what happened to whom. As authors, we take the What and break it down to its parts and have the character(s) work in it.

Keep writing.