Writing what you know – from experience

Writing advice is easy to come by. What to do with it can be a mystery.

Take a look around the internet and you’ll find plenty of free advice, and more than enough takes on this bit, which is frequently attributed to Mark Twain:

Write what you know.

Some people write about themselves because that’s what they know best. Others write about rock climbing, or travel, or science, or whatever subject they know well.

The concept is complicated when it comes to writing fiction, as this piece on Literary Hub illustrates.

I think I’ve led an interesting life so far, but I wouldn’t expect anyone to buy a book about it. Most of my writing has been nonfiction based on research and interviews on various topics. Still, I’ve made use of what I know from experience in my Detective Red Shaw novels. The following excerpt from North of Grand is one example, which draws on my love of bicycling as well as other lived experience. It’s my favorite way of writing what I know.


In which Detective Red Shaw visits a bike shop…

…while investigating the murder of a cyclist.

Half an hour later he was parked outside the place watching a middle-aged couple load two new bicycles on a brand-new rack on the back of a shiny, black SUV. They chatted with a young blonde woman who he guessed had just made the sale. The scene took him back to the time he and Sally bought new bicycles at a discount store and rode them three times one summer. He wasn’t sure where they’d ended up.

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

Inside the store he took a few minutes to browse, inspecting the lines of sleek, pricey road bikes and rugged, shock-equipped mountain bikes. He wondered how many of them ever actually saw a mountain. Assorted helmets hung on one wall near displays of water bottles and gloves and seat bags and other paraphernalia. There were hard, narrow saddles that weighed nothing or close to it. He could buy balm and padded shorts for his butt to ward off pain and chafing, then spend more bucks on tight, techno-wonder jerseys to keep him cool as he sped down some road in the sun. He picked up a coffee-can-size container of powder from a nearby display. The label claimed it would keep his electrolytes in balance and help him stave off dehydration if only he would mix it properly and drink the proper amount every hour during a long ride, then mix and drink more later to make sure he’d gotten enough.

The only employee in sight was adjusting the brakes on a bicycle in the shop area. A surly type with long, graying hair, he looked over once then turned back to the brake job without saying a word. He seemed to assume that Shaw wasn’t going to buy anything. He was right.

“Can I help you with something, sir?” The young woman from the parking lot appeared beside him. Up close, he guessed she’d be in her thirties, a little older than she looked outside. Attractive and obviously fit. Tess, her ID tag said.

“Thanks, but I’m just kind of looking around. Some people I work with swear that riding a bike has been all kinds of good for their health, mental and otherwise.”

She smiled at that. “I’m sure it has. It’s a great way to spend some time, get some exercise, get to work, whatever. I ride here every day, eight miles each way, unless there’s snow and ice.”

“You’re kidding,” Shaw said. “That’s a long way, isn’t it?”

“Not really,” she said. “If I wasn’t working I’d be out with my club for about fifty miles, and we’re doing a metric century tomorrow.”

“A metric century?”

“A hundred kilometers. Sixty-two miles or so.”

Shaw grimaced. “That doesn’t sound like all that much fun.”

“I bet you could do it with a little training,” she said, giving him a once-over. “You must run a lot, right? You’d just need some time to get used to sitting.”

“I’m not a runner, just a good metabolizer,” he said.

Tess smiled and nodded. “Well, I’d be happy to help you find the right bicycle so you can take a little test ride?”

“No time today, I’m afraid, but thanks.”

Shaw wandered over to a glass-topped case and examined several sets of pedals. Tess followed him. “I don’t see any prices on these,” he said. “What does a pair like that go for?”

“I’ll have to look it up if you’re really interested in buying something,” she said. “Not that you would do this, but some people come in and check prices and try on shoes and then go buy them online for cheap. We’re pretty touchy about it,”

Shaw scowled and shook his head. “Yeah, I wouldn’t appreciate that, either.”

“It’s gotten to be a pretty big problem.”

“I promise I won’t do that. So let me guess that these black pedals would run me, what, maybe a hundred?”

A little tilt of her head and subtle shake of blonde curls indicated more than a hundred.

“Okay, so maybe one-fifty? Then I’d need some special shoes. Another hundred? Maybe more?”

“Maybe a lot more, depending,” she said.

“And then if I was a jerk, I’d go buy them on Amazon or someplace for half of that?”

“Maybe not even half.” She gave him another, closer look. “You’re a cop, aren’t you?”

He tried to look offended, then pulled out his badge and handed her a card. “I prefer Detective but cop works.”

She looked around to see the surly mechanic approaching.

“Everything all right here, Tess?” he asked.

Shaw spoke first, holding up his badge again. “Detective Shaw. I’ve just been asking Tess here about bikes and pedals and shoes and so on, doing a little research. She’s very knowledgeable and very helpful.” He saw a trace of a smile on her face. “And your name is?”

“Tom. Tom Werner. Is this some sort of official business?”

“I’d call it semi-official curiosity,” Shaw said. “Trying to understand how things work. Tess says you have problems with people coming in to check prices, try on shoes, and then buy them online for a lot less.”

“Yeah, it’s a big problem for all the shops. Unfortunately it’s not a crime, though, so…”

Shaw ignored the unfinished question about his interest. “Do they get the same products online, same quality, all that?”

“Sometimes the exact same thing, some of it probably hot, some of it knockoffs. I’ve seen some of that crap come in here on bikes that guys want me to fix.”

“What do you do when that happens?”

“I point out to them why the piece of crap part failed, then I sell them a good one and send them on their way. It’s good business.”

A bell over the entrance door jangled as a young man came through with a bicycle and headed for the service desk. Werner turned to Tess. “Can you help him with that, babe? He called about needing a new brake cable, in a hurry.”

“I’ll take care of it,” she said.

Shaw watched her walk away, out of earshot. “Babe?”

“My wife, Detective. I get to call her that.”

“Nice young lady,” Shaw said. “I didn’t mean to pry. Not my business.” He watched closely to see if the irony was lost; prying was very much his business.

“Is there anything else you do need to know, Detective?”

Shaw scratched his chin and checked an unseen list on the ceiling. “Yeah,” he said. “Titanium. You sell any titanium bikes?”

Werner gestured to a row of bicycles. “Not here, no. I did years ago before we started this place. I worked at a shop on the west side that carried some. Most around here now are carbon or steel.”

“Do you service any? Titanium bikes, I mean.”

“Sure, once in a while. Why do you care about bike frames?”

Shaw moved slowly down the row, squeezing tires, fiddling with brake levers and checking price tags. “I’m not sure I do care. I just came across the term. Interesting how much technology is involved in these things.”

Werner shrugged. “Yeah, whatever people will pay for.”

“Have you ever heard of a guy that goes by cogstud or something like that,” Shaw asked over his shoulder, “maybe a nickname?”

“Sure. A racer named Heller. Thinks he’s a stud, I guess.”

Shaw turned at the end of the row. “Is the name zrides familiar?”

Werner was already shaking his head. “I should have guessed,” he said. “This is about Zach Costa, isn’t it?”

Shaw said nothing. He didn’t have to wait for long.

“Yeah, I knew him,” Werner said. “We all know each other.”

“So then you know Titaneum, right?” Shaw noted the confusion on Werner’s face.

“Titanium. Yeah, the frames you were asking about. What the …?”

“One other thing,” Shaw said. “Say someone had a special bike, a collector’s item, maybe from the sixties, and it was stolen. Where do you suppose a bike like that would turn up?”

“You’re asking me this because why?”

Shaw held his hands out, taking in the surroundings. “Just because I’m here and you know a lot about bicycles. I don’t mean anything else by it.”

Werner loosened a bit. “Yeah, okay. Sometimes people assume …”

“People assume a lot about cops, too. I’m just asking.” Shaw could see him drop his defenses a bit, but not by much.

“Well, hypothetically,” Werner said, “if it’s a rare bike it’s going to be pretty conspicuous on something like craigslist or eBay. Whoever took it would have to fence it somehow that wouldn’t be so obvious. I suppose there’s a market for anything hot if it’s in mint condition.”

“Would someone use it for parts?”

Werner looked doubtful. “Unlikely, unless he didn’t know it was worth a lot of money assembled, or he had a similar bike he needed parts for.”

Shaw reached out to shake hands. Werner’s grip was firm.

“All right, Tom,” Shaw said. “You’ve been very helpful. Tess has my card, so let me know if you do come across anything about an old bicycle that’s worth a lot of money.”

Werner followed him to the front door. “Right. What kind of bike are we talking about?”

“At this point,” Shaw said, “it’s a hypothetical bike.”

“Zach’s Paramount?”

“A hypothetical bike,” Shaw said again as he walked out.


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