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

15.30: Write What You Want To Know, with Laurell K. Hamilton

Your Hosts: Brandon, Dan, and Howard, with special guest Laurell K. Hamilton

We’ve all heard the “write what you know” rule. Laurell K. Hamilton joined us to talk about how she got started by writing what she wanted to know. In this episode we discuss our various paths to learning the things that fascinate us, and which we want to be able to write about.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Write what you want to know! Dragons, fantastic things! What interests you, what moves you emotionally? Write about that. When you want to know about it, you are passionate about it. Do the research, so you know what’s real, but you can also use the cool. Have fun! Find out what you love and write about that. Do your research, with books, multiple sources, and then experts. Pay attention to the Dunning-Kruger effect – are you too dumb to know how dumb you are? Look for encyclopedias, dictionaries, and bibliographies.

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 30.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Write What You Want to Know, with Laurell K. Hamilton.

[Howard] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Brandon] And we’re not that smart.


[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Laurell K. Hamilton.

[Woo hoo]

[Laurell] Hi, everybody. Glad to be here today.

[Brandon] We are recording live at SpikeCon.

[Whoo! Applause.]

[Howard] SpikeCon, which, this year, 2019, is also the host of the North American Science Fiction Convention, NASFIC.

[Brandon] We are very happy to be here. So. Write what you want to know. Laurell, you’re the one who pitched this idea to us. It was really pithy and we loved it.


[Brandon] Where did you come up with this phrase and what does it mean?

[Laurell] One of the things that I have always had a bugaboo about, since college, is one of the things they tell you in the writing courses is write what you know. They say, “Write what you know.” Well, I was a Midwestern girl, raised in farm country, raised below the poverty level. I didn’t want to write what I knew. I wanted to write about fantasy things. I wanted to write about dragons, like Anne McCaffrey. Dragons of Pern. I wanted to write about the fantastic. Well, there was a lot of fantastic in my life. So I get to college and they tell you write what you know. The teachers get mad at you that you wanted to write something that didn’t exist. So, I thought, no. I want to know about X, or Y. I want to know about… Like, for… When I sat down to write the Anita Blake series, I didn’t know anything about guns. I’d shot one gun in my entire life. I had a series where she carries a gun to work with the police. I had to go out and find out about guns and do research. I found out about what I wanted to know. So, pick something you want to know. What you’re interested in as a writer. If you’re… Most of us who write fantasy and science fiction, we want to write about something that makes us happy or that we’re fascinated by or that horrifies us. Something that moves us emotionally. For those of us who write in the genre, that is going to be something that we’re not going to be able to do in our real life, so we have to write about what we want to know.

[Howard] One of the things that I love about this concept is that… I mean, when I’ve heard it spun before, it’s been, oh, don’t bother with write what you know, you can go research and figure out the stuff that you don’t know. The difference here is the passion that’s going to go into what you want to know. Yeah, you want to write about dragons, you want to write a hard fantasy novel that has something to do with the way in which dragons fly? If that’s what you’re passionate about, you’re going to study bird wings and bat wings and some aerodynamics and pieces of your story… Because that’s what you’re excited about. Pieces of your story are going to grow out of that research in ways that will grab readers because it grabbed you. You were passionate about it. It’s what you wanted to know.

[Laurell] One of the things I found is as you research ru… Like, I wanted to put zombies. My main character raises zombies. So I actually researched voodoo. There are no such things as shambling dead in real voodoo. I’m just going to say that upfront. It doesn’t exist. I’m sorry. But no matter what the movies say, it doesn’t exist. But I did my research in real voodoo. It came up with other ideas. I finally… Somebody was in an audience and had… It was a part… Or this was their religion. I was waiting for them to lambaste me, and he came up, he says, “Thank you for doing the research in my faith.” He says, “Most people ignore it and treat it like it doesn’t exist and they don’t do real research.” I said, “Yes. But the shambling movie zombies, I still use them.” He says, “Yeah, but they’re so cool.”


[Laurell] So, if you do your research, you find out other ideas and things. Also, people will forgive you going that one step further. I wanted to write about the monsters in the real world as everybody knowing them. I am still having a great time. Give yourself enough toys when you’re writing. Don’t… You want to be having fun. Think of yourself at seven and you want all your toys. Well, if I wrote a straight mystery series, I don’t think I’d be in the 20 plus book of the series. Because I wouldn’t be having fun. I have a great time, every time I sit down to write, because I gave myself enough toys that interest me. Be passionate about your writing. You have to be interested.

[Dan] I like to think that research has kind of two main benefits. That story you told shows both of them. Number one, you’re getting the right stuff right. People who know what they’re talking about are not going to throw the book across the room because you wrote guns or horses or whatever it is wrong. The other thing is, you are buying goodwill with that research. So that then you can get other stuff wrong and people will go along with it, because it’s cool.

[Laurell] Yes. Very, very much so. But think about… Make a list of the things. As a beginning writer, make a list of the things that interest you. Look at what you love. Look at what you’ve loved since you were small. Make a list of that. Because, think about it. Not only can you be a writer, but you can write about the things that… At five, I would beg to stay up and watch Boris Karloff in the original Frankenstein. By myself, because nobody would watch it with me.


[Laurell] I was begging at five to watch a monster movie. Now, here I am, all these years later, and that’s what I write. Find out what you love and do that.

[Brandon] Dan taught me this lesson. Actually, because it goes back to the origin of I Am Not a Serial Killer, his first novel that was published. If we can kind of look at our careers, when we were young, in this way, like, we thought that we just needed to write what was being published. Right? The things that we read a lot, we were trying to mimic those. Which is how a lot of writers begin. You read a lot, you mimic what’s being published. But we hadn’t kind of hit upon yet was what are we going to add to this? What little aspect of the genre is really fascinating to us, that we can balloon into being our thing. For me, it was the magic systems. For Dan, it was a conversation on the way home from writing group, where we were talking about his fascination with serial killers. Dan, you’d always been writing epic fantasy.

[Dan] A very healthy thing.


[Dan] Yeah. I grew up reading fantasy and assumed that I would be a fantasy author. Wrote five really terrible fantasy novels.

[Brandon] They were not really terrible.


[Brandon] They were just moderately terrible, like all of ours were at that time.

[Dan] But it wasn’t until I learned this lesson that Laurell’s talking about, of what are you passionate about. Well. Serial killers. I’m not ashamed of that. Sitting down saying… I think what Brandon said was, “You always talk about this stuff, why don’t you just stop flirting with it and write about it?” I don’t know if those are the words he used, but that’s the message. I did. Some of that, I didn’t have to do a lot of research on, because I’d kind of spent my whole life learning everything I could about abnormal psychology and serial killer behavior. Other parts, I had to do copious amounts of research, so that a mortician would not, again, throw the book across the room when I talk about an embalming or something like that to make sure I got it right.

[Howard] The homeless population in our town dropped by like 80%.


[Dan] Lots of hands-on research.


[Brandon] Okay. On that, let’s stop for our book of the week.


[Brandon] Laurell, you’re going to tell us about Noir Fatale.

[Laurell] Sorry, you just distracted me. I’m going, “Wait…”


[Laurell] I am in a short story anthology called Noir Fatale. It just came out about a month ago, I think. It has, for me, an original Anita Blake short story called Sweet Seduction. Larry Correia is in it, David Weber is in it… I am blanking. I’m going… I’m terrible with names. I can see everybody’s face. Nope.

[Brandon] Lots of really great writers.

[Laurell] It is lots of really great writers. It’s based on the idea of the femme fatale from the old movies. Old noir movies. The femme fatale, in any way you wanted to do it. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror. So we’re taking the genre of the detective, part detective, Sam Spade and everything, and mixing it with our genre and what we love most. So, it was a lot of fun to sit down and try to do something short where I usually get to write so long. I love short stories. One of the things… A short story anthology is like one of those compilations that they used to do before you could download every song. You would find musicians you had not heard before, and sometimes things you really love. Anthologies are like that. It’s like a preview. You buy it for one person, and then you find somebody else that you love. Then you have a new author to follow.

[Brandon] Awesome. So, Noir Fatale.

[Dan] Noir Fatale…

[Brandon] Baen Books put that out.

[Dan] So if you are here at the con, there’s a whole page ad for that book in the program book. So look that up. If you’re listening to this online, you can find it everywhere, I assume.

[Brandon] So, Laurell, we’ll… For my next… Kind of, the next part of the podcast, let’s talk about your process of doing research. Let’s say you’ve come up with something you want to know. It’s a… There’s a bit of it that you’re really fascinated by. You’ve always wanted to learn more about it. What is your first step, where do you go?

[Laurell] First step is books and reading about it. For the Merry Gentry series, I researched anthropology. Okay. First of all, I grew up with a… My grandmother… We were Scotch Irish, so she would tell me the bogeyman… If I wasn’t good, that Bloody Bones would get me. Raw Head Bloody Bones would get me. Which is a Scottish nursery boggle from the border countries of Scotland. Of all the things for my family to keep, that one bit of folklore actually narrows the geographic area where my family comes from for generations. I thought, growing up like that, I thought I knew something about the Fae in Scotland and Ireland and England. No, not really. I thought I did. So, I started with what I thought I knew and then go to books. One of the things I do is I make sure that I… Books, not. The. Internet.


[Laurell] I’m sorry, you can start with the Internet, it’s a stepping off point, but you also have to make sure it is a book and not someone’s opinion on the Internet. Because contrary to popular opinion, just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t make it real. So, don’t just take one source either. Take multiple sources. So, start off with books. Then, if you need an expert… I would have talked to an anthropologist or a psychologist about the belief in fairies and how that had affected people and is it… How is it treated? Is it still thought of as a delusion? Or do people still believe? Like, I went back to the 1700s, to a folklorist who went out and interviewed people who had actually seen the high court of the Fae. Not as a delusion, but actually said, “No, they came to my farm. They rode by.” So, first, do your book research before you talk to a person that you’re taking their time up for. I really sincerely believe… So you have better questions. Don’t just go to somebody and say, “Tell me everything you know about X or Y.” You need good questions, because you don’t want to waste their time. Their time is valuable. So start with books. I now have two shelves of books on the fairies, on Fae, and anthropology and archaeology and anything in that area. It is… It’s taught me things about my own folklore that I grew up with, with my grandmother, that I realize now that some of it, she made up.


[Laurell] She started with a little kernel of truth, and then she kind of built on it, or my grandfather, great-grandfather did. Because she believed everything my great-grandfather said was gospel. So somebody in my family told a few big windy’s…


[Laurell] As they used to say. I guess it runs in the family.

[Howard] When I’m starting research on anything, I try to remember the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is when you don’t know enough to know just how little you know. You’re too dumb to know how dumb you are. Imagine, for a moment, that you are sitting in a car and there’s a place you want to be and there’s a person standing next to the car, and you ask them for directions. They give you directions. You don’t know how to drive the car.


[Howard] Okay. That’s Dunning-Kruger. The directions you just got will not get you there, because you don’t even know where to start. One of the things that I’ve learned, a skill that I have developed, when I search for things on the Internet, and I search for a lot of things on the Internet. Sorry, Laurell. When I search for things on the Internet, one of the first things that comes up is going to be the Wikipedia page. I’ve gotten really good at skimming it and looking for keywords that I don’t recognize that are linked. I will click them to pop open new tabs. All I’m doing now is learning about steering wheels and driveshafts and stick shifts and… Oh, wait, automatic transmission, that’s going to make it easier… And filling my head with that. Then I jump down into the bibliography and start finding books. But I’m not actually looking for the books, because I’m way too lazy to go get a book. What I’m looking for is the names of the people who wrote the books. Because often what I can find is that person’s blog in which they will say something about this topic. After… Okay, this is time consuming. I’m four hours in at this point, depending on the topic. But at this point, I know enough of the keywords that when I start reading those blog pages, the knowledge is dropping and I have hooks to hang it on. Now, if I go talk to somebody, I’m going to be able to get directions to ShopCo and make the car go there.

[Laurell] One of the things is for… You can use Internet as a jumping off point, you just can’t stop there. The other thing you cannot do is use other people’s fiction as your only research.

[Dan] Yeah, yeah.

[Laurell] You’d be amazed at how many people try to do that. But I also start with, like, a book that has in its title Encyclopedia or Dictionary of… The Dictionary of Fairies and… There’s a long title that goes with it. Catherine Briggs. That was one of the jumping off points for the Merry books. Encyclopedia or dictionary, you have, usually, a lot of information, small bits, and they have a great bibliography. If it doesn’t have a great bibliography, don’t use it for your research, because you don’t know if they did their research or not. I could never do it the way you do it, Howard, my dyslexia would slaughter me.


[Laurell] I can’t do keywords, I can’t skim that fast.

[Howard] I… About… Oh, gosh, 20 years ago, 25 years ago, I recognized that I had an I/O problem. I didn’t type fast enough and I didn’t read fast enough. So I learned to touch type the Dvorak and learned to speed read and it’s saved us some time.

[Laurell] I can… I touch type just fine, but I have trouble skimming.

[Howard] Yeah.

[Laurell] Because of dyslexia. So, yes. I am dyslexic. Lucky for me, it’s the middle of the word that moves, the ends of the words stay still for me. That means I can kind of figure it out, what it says and what it reads. For those who have dyslexia where the whole word moves, that’s much harder.

[Brandon] We are actually out of time. This has been a great topic, and a great audience. Thank you, audience from SpikeCon.


[Brandon] Laurell, thank you so much for being on the podcast. Do you have, by chance, a writing prompt you can give our audience?

[Laurell] Do I have a writing prompt? I was walking home from work one day. Start with anything. Start with anything, any sentence. Start with anything. Write from there. Because what I’ve found that stops a lot of beginning writers is they don’t have… They stop themselves before they start. Sometimes, they have the fish head, and the fish head is what you chop off so you have a fish you can cook. Until you sit there and write, you don’t know how… You don’t know if you are writing fish head or story. But to get your whole fish to fry up for your story, you have to write the stuff at the beginning. Just get started. Take that first step.

[Howard] So our fish head prompt is, “I was walking home from work one day.”

[Brandon] And go.

[Laurell] Yup.

[Dan] Awesome.

[Brandon] Thank you so much for being on the podcast.

[Dan] Thank you very much.

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