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Using Real-Life Details to Ground Your Thriller Novel

Jeremy Scott demystifies the too-broad writerly advice of writing what you know by challenging us to focus in on the details.

If you are a writer or even an aspiring writer, you’ve almost certainly heard the phrase, “Write what you know.” And while I’m here to support that phrase, I’d also like to wallop it upside the head so it can stop being misinterpreted and overthought.

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“Write what you know” is way too freaking broad, and it results in aspiring authors delving into extended detail of specific workplaces or unique life actions that people simply don’t want to read about.

I don’t think “write what you know” should apply to your job. Very few readers give a crap if you have hyper-detailed prose on the search engine optimization process, or why some plants are good for your yard but others are invasive and bad. There are not many thrillers about research assistants or data-input specialists.

I mean … unless you are writing specifically about those practices and disciplines for your novel … “writing what you know” about your job is not going to help immerse the reader.

For instance, if you’re writing a murder thriller, then “write what you know” doesn’t mean your job or your lineage—unless you are a killer or a cop. It means DETAILS!

Using Real-Life Details to Ground Your Thriller Novel

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My thriller, When the Corn is Waist High, is set in the 1980s in rural Indiana in a corn-farming town of 2,000 people. This is exactly the kind of place I was living in the 80s growing up. But rather than pepper my story with specifics about my dad’s job (Protestant preacher), my mother’s job (OB nurse the next town over), or my school assignments (regular middle school stuff), I peppered it with details about life in this town and the people who inhabited it.

Specifically, I chose to write first and foremost about food. Dishes I had at potlucks, meals from school cafeterias, common take-out fare. Every food written about in the book is something I ate a LOT of as a kid. My novel is littered with food references lifted straight out of my own life, and the love and detail I’m able to use describing those foods only adds subconsciously to the reader’s immersion.

I don’t know anything about serial killers or detectives. I am clueless about the Catholic faith. And yet, I wrote a protagonist who was both sheriff and priest, because my local knowledge filled out the rest of the town around that character.

Geography is another area I’d encourage you to “write what you know.” The more clearly you can paint the difference between important locations the better, and if you use real locations from your youth—even if they are renamed—you are only adding realism to the story.

Was there a creek in your neighborhood? Was there a local non-chain pizza place everyone loved? Were there any strange behaviors by odd locals that people just smiled and shook their heads at? Any local wilderness spots like caves or secret swimming holes?

Local laws are another way to write what you know: Strange traffic conditions, outdated laws still on the books, local customs and traditions.

Scott, 4:10

What about people? Did you know a particularly strict teacher? A nosy neighbor? Gossipy church folk? Base your fictional characters and their personalities on people you actually knew and remember well. Be sure to change their names, of course, but real-world personality traits will always read as more authentic than made-up ones.

You see, “write what you know” doesn’t intend for you to go off like some kind of expert on a particular subject. It doesn’t intend for you to be a snob. It’s a background tool. Pepper your story with real-life details in the background, and even if they don’t stand out, your readers will subconsciously trust your world-building even more.

It could just as easily be “write WHO you know.” What people in your life do you remember standing out most? Loud jokers? Silent wry types? Oddballs? Or “write WHERE you know.” Any odd intersections, unique shops, local customs?

Take people and places and behaviors you remember standing out to you from your past and fictionalize them into the fabric of your story. Without even realizing it you will imbue your story with an air of authenticity that will help immerse readers in your tale.

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