Write What You Know: I Just Work Here

One of my favorite books about the craft is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s chocked full of interesting anecdotes and useful tidbits about King’s approach to the written word (definitely check it out if you haven’t already). Much of that book has stuck with me over the years, but one of my favorite bits is not one you might expect. Here it is:

People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do. If you’re a plumber who enjoys science fiction, you might well consider a novel about a plumber aboard a starship or on an alien planet.”

This jumped off the page at me, and not just because I want to read about a space plumber (and I totally do). It’s that I wholeheartedly agree, and I love to read about people’s work. If a novel or story goes into detail about a profession I know nothing about, be it carpentry or cattle ranching, I’m hooked. But why? King goes into a fair amount of detail about that, and here’s what I took away from it.

One, writing about something you know intimately–like your job–injects authenticity into your work. When an author knows the lingo and the ins and outs of a profession it increases immersion. Two, readers like characters they can relate to, especially if the story contains aliens, demons, or other fantastical things. If your story is written from the perspective of a recognizable profession, it gives the reader a familiar lens through which to view the more otherworldly elements of your story. It makes it easier to suspend disbelief.

I think this concept can also apply to a profession or activity you know a lot about (hobbies and the like) or one you have researched thoroughly. It doesn’t have to be your actual job. Also, if you’re passionate about the subject, that often comes through.

I make no bones about Stephen King being a huge influence on my work, so not surprisingly, I’ve written a number of stories about folks doing their jobs and running into something weird or horrific in the process. Here are some of my favorite examples.

“Night Games” – This short story is about a vampire that plays minor league baseball. The sport is a huge passion of mine, and I have pretty extensive knowledge of the rules and history of America’s Pastime. I used some of that knowledge and based the story loosely off one of the weirder incidents in baseball history (look up the name Tyler Colvin). Of course, the danger with injecting so much of one subject into a story is that, well, some folks (including editors) have no interest in that subject. “Night Games” received a couple of “Nope. Too much baseball” rejections before I sold it to Devilfish Review and then again to Pseudopod.

“The Back-Off” – I’m fascinated with gambling, especially cards, and I study poker and blackjack on a regular basis. (I only play rarely and not particularly well.) One thing that really interests me are card cheats, how they operate, and how casinos deal with them. “The Back-Off” is the story of a low-level mob boss who runs a casino and encounters what he thinks is a man cheating at blackjack. In the story, I go into a lot of detail about card counting, which is not technically cheating, but tell that to the casinos. Anyway, all the information I give the reader about card counting adds shape to the narrative and clues in both the main character and the reader that something far more dangerous is going on. Now, again, if you have no interest in blackjack or card counting, this story might not work for you, and it racked up more than a few rejections before I sold it to On Spec. 

“Outdoor Space” – My wife works in real estate and has done so for nearly two decades. To say that I’ve absorbed a bit of real estate knowledge over the years is an understatement. Now, real estate may not sound like the kind of job you want to base a story on, but if you add a little twist, well, you might have something. “Outdoor Space” is a humorous flash fiction story about a real estate agent in a post-apocalyptic world. Imagine Mad Max running an open house and you’ll get the idea. Admittedly, it’s a kooky concept, but it was a lot of fun to write, and folks seemed to dig it. I sold that one pretty quick. 🙂

Oddly, I’ve never written a story about an author or editor, which are two professions I’ve obviously done. Other writers–King among them–do a fine job writing about writers, but for some reason, I can never do it convincingly.

Have you used the relatable job + weird twist in your writing? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

6 Comments on “Write What You Know: I Just Work Here

  1. I’ve definitely done this with hobbies before, running and MMA most notably, but not jobs. I more or less quit life in order to write full-time, so I don’t think I’m quite ready to go back and revisit what I left to give it a relatable spin. That said, being a former research scientist presents a lot of opportunities…

    • Yeah, I’ve probably done more hobbies and interests in my work than jobs I’ve held as well. MMA is a great one, especially if you’re writing action-oriented stuff. All my “practical” experience in that area is in fencing (HEMA and the like), and that has definitely found it’s way into my work.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • I firmly believe that if anyone is going to write about fighting, they should get into a (simulated) fight at least once.

        Also, super jelly about your HEMA experience, it looks like so much fun!

      • Some light sparring to understand things like distance (measure in fencing) and whatnot could be helpful. Honestly, though, I think you could learn a lot just by going to a boxing or MMA gym, watch folks spar or roll, and then ask questions. I’ve certainly done that with other types of hobbies and professions.

        HEMA is a blast, and I miss it. I hope to be able to return to it in the near future. Injury kept me away for a while, and then, well, pandemic. Anyway, one of the things that’s really interesting about HEMA, especially for an MMA practitioner, is how much grappling is involved. Throws, locks, and other techniques any judo or BJJ enthusiast would recognize were very common in the fencing manuals and treatises of the day.

      • Dude… are you TRYING to make me more jealous? Cuz it’s working :p

        While I’d never really considered the role of grappling in HEMA/armed combat, it makes total sense. Once you close enough distance, you mitigate pretty much all the benefits of having a long blade. And if you can take the opponent down while staying on your feet…game over, man.

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