Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.31: Learning to Listen as a Writer

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

“Write what you know” gets misapplied a lot. In this episode we’ll talk about how to know things by listening well. In particular, we’re looking at writing interesting characters by listening to real people.

We also talk about the more formal act of interviewing people¹, and how to deal with the attendant complexities.

Liner Notes:  Mary references her interviewing of rocket scientists and astronauts, which we just talked about last week. When this episode was recorded the JPL trip was still in our future, and was “will have been” extremely cool.

Comment Notes: The audio file wasn’t correctly linked until Tuesday. The irony of the our “how to listen” episode having exactly zero “listen” buttons is not lost on anyone.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson and engineered by Alex Jackson. Their fine work was obscured from public view by the careless hands of Howard Tayler.

Homework: Interview some people! Find someone you don’t know, and then interview them, with a goal of learning something new.

Thing of the week: Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer To Retrain Your Brain, by Stephen J Dubner and Steven D Leavitt, narrated by Stephen J. Dubner.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Writing Excuses 13.31: Learning to Listen As a Writer


Key points: Write what you know? Extrapolate from what you know? Learn lots of things? Make sure you know before you write? Hemingway: if I write a story every day based on one thing I know, I will never run out of ideas. But how do you incorporate people and things you see around you? Often unconsciously, without knowing where I picked it up? Sometimes very consciously, write it down! Warnings? Sometimes. Often the attitude more than the exact words. Concepts! Pay attention or listen? Spend less time talking than listening, especially when it’s something you don’t understand. Watch for commonality or overlap. Let the other person tell you what they want to talk about. Release forms? No. A contract for expert knowledge. Be careful when you put people you know in your work. Try to make them not recognizably similar to specific people. Beware of using someone’s personal experience as is. Nonfiction research? Watch for common experiences. Borrow an incident, but make the context and characters different. Do pause, and check. Cribbing reactions, probably not good. Borrowing incidents or events, probably okay. Do look for and celebrate differences, which are what make characters pop out and be unique.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Learning to Listen As a Writer.

[Mary] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] What?


[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary] I’m Mary.

[Dan] I’m disappointed…


[Howard] In Howard.

[Brandon] So. Old adage in writing, write what you know. Which I’ve always found a strange adage, because if I only wrote exactly what I know, and I think every new writer thinks this, you’re going to end up with exactly the same book every time. But that’s not what that adage means.

[Mary] No. I’ve always thought that that adage actually means extrapolate from what you know.

[Brandon] And learn lots of things. It kind of… I always… Often heard it referenced in this sort of make sure you know before you write. What we’re going to be talking about today is if you want to write really spectacular characters, you probably want to learn to be an observer of human behavior and learn how to incorporate that into your writing. Which is full of all sorts of pitfalls at the same time. So, let’s dig into it. How often do you incorporate things you see around you, specifically people? How do you do it? What are the issues you need to be aware of?

[Mary] A lot of times, I’m doing it unconsciously, because it’s just something that I’ve overheard or seen and it’s a mannerism… I don’t actually remember where I saw it or picked it up. Other times, I do it quite consciously, where I will… Someone will say something. I’m like, “That’s really smart and clever.” I will… I have been known to just write it down.


[Brandon] Do you warn them, when you do?

[Mary] Ah… If it’s someone I know, I warn them. If it’s someone… Where it’s on the subway or something, I’m like, “They’re not even going to remember that they said that thing.” It’s not that I’m… The chances of it actually… First of all, the chances of my writing it down being exactly what they said? Pretty slim. But… Frequently, I don’t wind up using it, but just the attitude of the character will stick.

[Brandon] For me, it will often be like the… If it’s a clever quip like that, it’s the concept. Why did I find this funny? A plus B was amusing to me. Can I come up with other A plus B’s that are funny in the same way? But sometimes it’s the same things you just mentioned. I say that character… The way this person is talking, that snapshot of a personality, is something I want to start playing with in my head until the character will work out.

[Howard] In terms of behavior as a writer, I would categorize that more under pay attention than listen. Listen, for me, usually means when I’m talking to another person, when we’re having a conversation, I want to spend less time talking than I spend listening. I don’t want to tune out the things that I don’t understand. A while back, I just posited a question in response to some silliness that was happening. If somebody in a conversation with you describes an experience they’ve had that is completely alien to you, what is your reaction? Do you explain it away by telling them they’re wrong? Or do you believe them, because there must be some reason that they’re telling you this, and continue to listen and maybe learn about something that is completely alien to you? After adopting that second mindset, after realizing, you know what, my experiences, no matter how old I get, how well-traveled I get, how smart I think I am, my experiences are always going to not include 99% of what happens out there. If I want to be able to put those things in a story, if I want to be able to be a good person, I have to listen, and I have to believe. Because most people… I mean, when people are telling you about a thing that happened to them, or a way that they feel, most people aren’t lying about that. They’re being honest.

[Mary] The… One of the things that you were saying about the fact that your experience is only going to be like 1% at best of commonality or overlap, it just reminded me, the… Do you know where write what you know comes from?

[Brandon] No, I don’t.

[Mary] It’s actually Hemingway. I’m going to paraphrase it badly, but he basically said something like, “If I write… If I pick one thing that I know each day and write a story based on that, I will never run out of ideas.” Which is a very different interpretation of write what you know! I think that one of the things for me about learning to listen as a writer is also learning to listen to the… To your own experience, and the places where your experience overlaps with someone else’s. That drawing those lines and those parallels are one of the things that can help you unpack stuff.

[Brandon] Right. You may not, in other words, know what it’s exactly like to be a welder in the 1940s, but you might know what it’s like to be a father, and build on that commonality and explore the parts that are different while reinforcing the parts that are the same as you build a character.

[Mary] Yeah, this is something that my mom talks about. So my mom spent several decades as an arts administrator, and would have to… She would have to schmooze. She was a fundraiser. So her job was to be an active listener, because that is the best way to make someone feel… Feel like they are in an interesting conversation, is to let them talk about themselves or the things that they’re interested in. But to keep from lying about it, mom would steer the conversations to those overlaps, those places where the other person had something that she was also interested in. I think that that’s one of the things as a writer that when we talk about learning to listen, it’s really learning to be curious and engaged with other people and to not center yourself in the conversation.

[Dan] Yeah. When I am talking to someone, this is particularly when I’m trying to learn someone… Learn something, I always learn the best stuff when I let them tell me what they want to tell me, rather than trying to get one piece of information. When I was talking to lawyers, I did a bunch of lawyer research for one of my books, there were two or three key things that I needed to know in order for my plot to work. But I learned so much more by just saying, “Well, you know, you… You’re the expert here. Tell me more about your job and about what it’s like and about your experiences.” And just letting them take the conversation where they wanted.

[Brandon] This is part of why we’re trying to do this, this year on Writing Excuses, is give you once a month or so a glimpse into someone’s life that you may not have a chance to interview for things like this that you can use as a resource. My question then, to you… To the podcasters, is twofold. How do you record these things when you are interviewing someone? What physical means do you use? And number two, at what point do you need a release form to use this sort of thing? Do you ever need a release form, or what’s the possible… 

[Dan] I have never actually used a release form. Typically, I will mention them in my acknowledgments of the book, and put in the little line of if there’s mistakes, they’re my fault, not theirs.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Mary] I’ve used a contract when I have been using someone… Using expert knowledge. With both… In the Glamorous Histories… Actually Glamorous Histories and Calculating Stars, I wound up hiring… In Glamorous Histories, I hired a historical law expert, and I also hired in Antiguan writer/editor to handle some dialects that I knew I was going to screw up. For the Calculating Stars, I hired an actual rocket scientist. Then, I also worked with some astronauts and some other NASA people who were not allowed to do this for money. Because it was exploiting their government position. But with all of them, I’m very upfront about this is the information that I need to get, and I do my research before I talk to them, so that I’m not asking them the 101 questions. Like, “How does a rocket fly?” I don’t think…


[Mary] I… What I do is, I usually go in with very specific things that I need to know that I can’t find. Then… Sometimes I will also do madlibs where I will write a line that just says, “He fiddled the jargon…”


[Mary] “And turned to her and said jargon.”

[Brandon] Jargon the jargon.

[Dan] That was the version of Calculating Stars that I read. It was awesome.


[Brandon] Now I…

[Mary] It was a lot of jargon.

[Brandon] I want to throw something out to you, listeners. We are planning right now to go to NASA and get you some…

[Mary] Some actual as…

[Brandon] Some actual astronauts on the podcast. I tell you this, we’d keep it a surprise but I have…

[Mary] We cannot…


[Howard] Well, at this point in the…

[Brandon] No faith in our ability to not tweet about it.

[Howard] At this point, they may have already heard one of those episodes.

[Brandon] They may have. That’s right. It’s possible.

[Dan] Maybe.

[Howard] This was either really surprising, or now you know how excited we were about… 


[Howard] That thing that you heard us be very enthusiastic about when we recorded it.

[Brandon] Were we going to put that one… Yeah. But…

[Dan] So I wanted to jump in quick and say that what Mary’s talking about are very kind of specific and professional relationships. If what you’re doing is just putting in… Putting people that you know into your work, you often have to be much more careful. When I wrote Extreme Makeover, which is about a beauty company, and I have worked in several beauty companies, I went out of my way to make sure that none of the executive staff in that book were recognizably similar to the executives that I had worked with in those companies.

[Brandon] That’s smart.

[Dan] To avoid this kind of what did you do?

[Brandon] It might be urban lore, because I’ve never had it explained to me firsthand. So this is not legal advice and I’m not a lawyer. But I’ve heard told to me that the dividing line is use somebody’s personal experience. Like, they tell you a story of when they were in World War II, and what exactly happened to them, that’s… Then you use that exact story, that is where you’re crossing the line into danger territory, that you’re going to want to have a release. Because potentially, if that person were to decide to write a book about their life in World War II, and you have used their story, they could materially prove that your story has wounded their chances of their story selling. But when you say this person is a big interesting blowhard at a company, I’m going to create a big interesting blowhard like them and write a story, you don’t need a release for that. So, watch that line.

[Howard] You’re not going to [garbled]

[Dan] There’s that blowhard.

[Mary] Just… Listeners. You’re right, we did go to NASA last week for you guys.


[Dan] It was literally last week.

[Brandon] Literally last week.

[Dan] Awesome.

[Mary] But you can tell that we have not been to NASA yet, so we’re engaging in time travel.

[Dan] We went to NASA last week. They had a time machine.

[Brandon] We will have another NASA episode coming up.

[Mary] I think it’s when we will go to NASA last week.

[Brandon] We will have gone to NASA.

[Brandon] All right, let’s stop for the book of the week. Howard?

[Howard] Okay. In the interest of learning to listen, there’s a nonfiction book by Stephen Dubner and Steven Leavitt called Think like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. It is… It’s a fairly short read, I think it’s about a five hour audiobook, and it’s got a couple of hours of the Freakonomics podcast tacked onto the end of it. But they talk about how their data gathering tools, as economists, as researchers, forced them to rethink things that were conventional wisdom, common knowledge, whatever, completely turning some of our ideas on their heads. Honestly, if you’ve… If you’re unfamiliar with Freakonomics and all that, that five-hour listen may very well retrain parts of your brain so that you can listen in ways that you weren’t able to before.

[Brandon] If you have somehow come to our podcast and not listened to one of the most popular podcasts in the entire world… 


[Brandon] Then you should be familiar with it, because it’s actually a very fun listen. They’re great books. I really enjoy them.

[Howard] Well, Dubner, the journalist of the two, Dubner narrates. He’s so conversational. It’s just a… It was a delight to listen to this book.

[Brandon] So, building off of that, how specifically do you guys take a nonfiction book and use it as research for a book you’re working on?

[Mary] Heavily. Says the person who writes historical fantasy and science fiction. I use it really heavily. But what I do is I look for common experiences that I see multiple types of characters have. I… But I’m also not above like going, “Well, that’s a really harrowing story that I am giving as backstory to one of my characters.” I typically don’t… I can’t even say that. Usually, you can take a single incident and when you put it into your story, the context is so different and the characters that are happening are so different, that it’s not the same thing. Like in… There’s a character in Calculating Stars who has a medical issue that was a medical issue that I read about in an astronaut biography. But it’s also a medical issue that my father-in-law experienced. My father-in-law is a Vietnam-era fighter pilot. In both cases, it was probably caused by being a fighter pilot. So that was the kind of thing, and I was like, well, this experience is something that I feel totally free lifting because it’s not a unique experience. Even though I’m taking the inspiration from a specific astronaut’s biography.

[Brandon] Right. You want to take this and have it inform a larger picture of the character you’re developing, rather than lifting one person wholesale and having every beat be the same.

[Mary] Well, the other thing is that you can take the same incident, but the character is going to react to it differently than the real person did. That’s the stuff that’s interesting.

[Howard] Procedurally, for me, I’ve found that… I’ve consumed… Over the last couple of years, I’ve probably consumed 250 hours worth of documentaries on World War II and space travel and a whole host of other things. All of that, I can’t point at any one thing specifically that has informed my writing. But my writing is better as a result. Things have a more real shape because I am learning more real things. One of the most important skills I’ve picked up was the ability to question myself before I commit something in print. Where I would take something that I’m writing that… You know what, that’s right, I remember reading this in a whatever or hearing it in a documentary. Writing something down, often something scientific or mathemalogical or whatever. Then I’ll stop and say, “You know what? Let’s take a moment and Google and make sure I’m using those words correctly.”


[Howard] Often, I will find out that I remembered that incorrectly, and I’m going to fix that now. It’s… The more I know, the more I pause to check what I know before I commit something to print.

[Brandon] Now, did you say mathemalogical?

[Howard] I said mathemalogical and I said it on purpose, because it’s funny.

[Brandon] That is so awesome.


[Dan] But now, we’ve called attention to it. I’ve been trying to remember the name of this woman and I can’t and I feel very bad. I will look it up and make sure it gets in the liner notes. But I listened to a memoir by a woman who was a chaplain for the Forest Service.


[Dan] It was fascinating. There was one particular incident with a murderer that she had to deal with that I just thought was incredible. I spent a year or so trying to figure out how I could incorporate some aspect of that into the book I was writing, and realized that what I loved about it was her reaction and her choices that she had made in that event. That is what kept feeling wrong, and I ended up not using that. So that, for me, has become the line. That if I’m going to talk about an event or a technology or a thing or an illness or whatever it is, that’s fair game. But if I am cribbing somebody else’s very specific reaction to it, then I’ve stepped over the line.

[Mary] As we are wrapping up, the thing that I’m going to say that we have not said is we’ve been talking about the commonalities, but the other thing that’s really hugely important is to look at and celebrate the differences. Because those are the things that are going to make your characters really pop out and be unique. So the commonalities are the things you can kind of coast on those, and it’s important to know where they are, but the places where your character reacts that are different, those are the things that are, I think, really important. My mother-in-law says that you know that you love someone because… when you love them because of their flaws. I think that’s kind of one of the things with… When we’re trying to create characters and to listen as a writer, to listen to the things that are different from us and to celebrate those.

[Brandon] Awesome. Dan, you’re going to give us some homework.

[Dan] Yes. We talked earlier in the episode about interviewing people. So we want you to do that. It might be a good idea to use a clipboard, just so you have something that makes you look a little more like an official interviewer, and a little less like a weirdo in a grocery store. But find somebody that you don’t know, out in the world, and just ask them if you can take a few moments and just interview them quickly. Ask about their lives, ask about what they do, their job, learn something you didn’t know before about a person that you’ve never met.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.