Monday, January 2, 2012

Right, What You Know

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My guest this week is Matt Iden, author of three very good short-story collections that range from "straight crime action to chilling psychological conflicts to darkly humorous situations."
     "Write what you know." It's probably the most common opening line in writers' guides. The implication is that your personal experience is an untapped vein of precious tales, nuggets of story-telling just waiting to tumble into your greedy little paws, if you would just take the time to catch them. You can at least start a writing career from the things that have happened to you, they say. The rest you can make up.
     Problem is, I have a wealth of experiences, but they don't always fit neatly into a story. Friends ask why I haven't written a novel about my time as a seasonal postman or the trip I took to Antarctica. Any idiot, they seem to suggest, could publish a diary like mine, slap a title on it, and have a best-selling book out next week. "Well, yes," I say, squirming, unable to explain that my ideas don't spring forth fully-formed. The novels, stories, and poems all come from the same place, it's true, but experiences all go into a hopper where they stew, swish around, and pop out--sometimes unbidden--onto the page. Or don't.
     Here's one. It's been bothering me for years. One day I was at my local gym. I was done exercising and went to the locker room to clean up. It was the middle of the day, so the place was nearly empty (emphasis on nearly). I packed my gym clothes and turned the corner out of my locker room alcove into the main corridor. Walking ahead of me, with his back turned, was a young, thirty-something guy. He was, which I had occasion to notice because he was buck naked.
     Now, this is distressingly common in locker rooms. I'm no prude, but I go to the gym to work out, not to put myself on display. Unfortunately, it's not that unusual to find one's locker room mates shaving at the sink, weighing themselves, or chatting about stocks and bonds with their neighbor, all 100% in the buff. When I find myself near one of these exhibitionists, I discourage conversation, finish my business as quickly as possible, and keep my eyes unfocused, yet fixed to a point about eight feet off the floor and slightly to the right.
     Alas, this day it was not to be. Blissfully unaware of his audience of one, the man proceeded to demonstrate as he walked down the hall what I can only describe as the most energetic and rhythmic hand jive--using every surface of his exposed body--I've ever had the pleasure to see or hear. It was impossible for me to look away. He wasn't obese, but the...fervor with which he slapped himself made his flesh wobble and turn from pink to scarlet. The wet smackings of palm meeting flesh--flickety flack-whack, skittery flack-swack--rang throughout the locker room, a staccato beat of pectoral muscles thumped, upper arms swatted, and buttocks spanked. The music didn't stop until the man--still oblivious to me--opened the door to the sauna, stepped inside, and ended the performance with the snick of the shutting latch.
     This life episode, as I think you'll agree, is worth writing about. I believe I've demonstrated that. But I'll be damned if I can find an appropriate place for it in one of my crime fiction stories. So, it languishes in my mental crock-pot, waiting to be used at the appropriate time. When I tell this story at parties, people laugh, then ask what book it'll be in.
     "I have no idea," I tell them. "But if you figure it out, will you let me know?"

Author Bio
Matthew Iden writes crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor. His short stories are available in several digital collections--Three Shorts, Three the Hard Way, Three on a Match, and Three of a Kind--as well as the master collection, one bad twelve. His medium-boiled P.I. novel featuring retired Washington DC homicide detective Marty Singer debuts soon in A Reason to Live. Connect with Matthew at his blog Life Sentence ( or tweet him @CrimeRighter.

Sample or buy any of his short stories at


Polly said...

Why would I want to write only what I knew? My readers would fall asleep. It's helpful if you could incorporate the things you know, but come on...other than some writers who are or were police officers or detectives or FBI agents, how many of us have even seen a murder victim, let alone fall over one? I'm in favor of writing what you DON'T know. Think of all we've learned by doing that.

Thanks for the post, Matt.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Polly. I agree, our own experiences--with few exceptions--wouldn't make very interesting mysteries or thrillers (unless you count the pulse-pounding excitement of getting pulled over for a speeding ticket).

I sympathize with teachers of Creative Writing 101 who use this old mantra to get their students started, but at some point you have to leave the familiar behind and use a writer's most valuable tool...the imagination.

Thanks for stopping by!


Ellis Vidler said...

My idea is to write what you have a hope of knowing--or learning. I write about things I can research and understand. For instance, I wouldn't write about a winter in Nepal or growing up as the child of Middle Eastern immigrants (unless maybe I had a friend who would share the experience in detail). I'd chose something closer to my own experience that I could research and get a feel for.

E. B. Davis said...

When I think of the phrase, "write what you know," I apply it to human nature, not so much to plots. As we get older, we actually do know more than the young. Using our knowledge and experience with our fellow man makes for believable characters. I may not have met a murderer, but then I also subscribe to the theory that all of us have the capacity to kill.

Okay--your scenario--I see Elvis saying something sarcastic to the guy in the locker room. Then having Joe Pike say nothing while pointing a shotgun at the guy. Guy covers himself up and acts contrite--that's the Robert Crais version--you make your own.

I love short stories. Good luck with all of your work.

Anonymous said...

Hi E.B.!

You mean *Crais's* Elvis, right?

For a second I had a VERY strange image of The King--in his white sequin jumper--talking to the naked locker room guy. "Nice rhythm you got there, fella."

In all seriousness, I like your take on the old phrase. Incorporating what one has learned about people over the years (especially writers, who tend to be keen observers) can't help but add realism to your characters and scenes.


Anonymous said...

Yup. Write what you know. Some of my writing includes flame dragons. I wonder what that says about me.

Tom Crepeau

Ellis Vidler said...

Tom, what are flame dragons? I've been thinking about The Dragonriders of Pern, so those dragons came immediately to mind.

Anne DeMarsay said...

Matt, that's a hilarious incident, and a blog may be the perfect place for those "I am not making this up" stories to appear first. I find that versions of my friends' odd encounters and experiences--the stories they've told that evoked vivid images and stuck in my mind--sometimes end up in my stories. So perhaps your naked man will appear in a locker room at a fancy resort in the tropics to unnerve a fellow writer's amateur detective, who is already reeling from discovering a body that morning . . .

Anne DeMarsay

Matt Brown said...

Ha ha! So funny, I hate that guy at the gym! There's nothing you can do to dispel the awkwardness either...