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 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.”

Continue reading “Writing what you know – from experience”

Mini-mystery in a phone call

Last week at a Meet the Author event, I read some excerpts from North of Grand, my second Detective Red Shaw novel. What follows is one of my favorites, in which Shaw gets a phone call that ends in a little extra mystery.


The sun was still up but Shaw turned in early after dining on what remained of a four-day-old pepperoni pizza and downing a Leinenkugel. He lay awake in bed for an hour, appreciating the AC, replaying the day in his mind, then trying to shut his brain down so he could sleep. The phone rang. Cheryl. Again already? He answered.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

“Hello, Detective,” she said. Her voice was a bit deeper, sexier than in her voicemail or how she had sounded in person.

“Hello, Ms. Massey.”

“Cheryl, please.”

“Okay, hello, Cheryl. What can I do for you?”

“Can I call you Ed?”

Shaw hesitated. “Is this about police business?”

“No … I hope not.”

“Well I hope not, too. Ed is fine, please.”

“How about Red?” Her voice was lighter, playful. He had to laugh.

“You can call me whatever you like.”

When she didn’t respond, he tried to wait her out, as he had with countless suspects. He broke first, and quickly. “I’ve thought about calling you.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“Well, I guess I assumed you’re married or otherwise involved, and I didn’t have your number … until a few hours ago.”

“The detective couldn’t find my phone number?”

“Well, I suppose I could have, but I hadn’t yet. Besides, there’s that thing about not knowing if you were married … or otherwise involved.”

She laughed, and he imagined her reaching out to touch his arm.

“You’re funny,” she said. “I like that. Otherwise involved.”

“It covers a lot of possibilities,” Shaw said. Again, she fell silent. He broke, again. “So … which is it, Cheryl?”

He heard a voice, faint in the background.

“Otherwise involved,” she said. “I have to go, Red.”

And then she was gone.


Read the book on Kindle or Nook!

See you soon, Des Moines!

Mrs. Smith and I don’t often get back to our former stomping grounds in Iowa’s capital city, but we’ll be there Saturday, June 8. It’s a multi-purpose trip, including a “Meet the Author” event the nice folks at Beaverdale Books so generously arranged on rather short notice.

If you’ve read some previous posts (like this one), you already know that both my fictional detective, Edward “Red” Shaw, and I are from Des Moines. Some of the action in North of Grand even takes place in Beaverdale at a taproom/bike shop I made up out of thin air.

Really looking forward to this trip. Join us at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 8, at Beaverdale Books if you’re in the area: 2629 Beaver Avenue.

Read on,

B.J.

What is Des Moines?

A hot day at the ballpark

Excerpted from North of Grand: Detective Red Shaw Novel #2
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Shaw tried to remember the last time he’d been on a date. Way back, right after he met Sally. He hoped this one wouldn’t be as awkward. They’d arranged to meet at the west end of a pedestrian bridge over the river, just a short walk from the police station. He could see her approach from a distance, sporting a close-fitting white top and shorts. She was dressed for the heat and hard to miss. Her light brown curls were tied back and topped with a Cubs visor. A Cubs-blue bag hung from her shoulder.

Baseball image with quote from page text: “Baseball,” she said, looking him in the eye, deadpan serious, “is a metaphor.”

“Hi, Red,” she said as she gave his hand a little squeeze. “Are you ready for some baseball?”

“You bet” was the best he could do. If her V-neck were any deeper, he wouldn’t have been able to speak at all. He took in her smile, her green eyes, and tried to relax. He tried to ignore the sweat trickling down his back and wished he hadn’t worn blue jeans. They followed the walkway south along the river.

“I played here once,” Shaw said as they approached the stadium.

“Really?”

“Well, not here, exactly, but in the old stadium. Same spot. This is nicer.”

They stopped to buy tickets. Not many seats were left for a hot summer night and they small-talked as the line crept along.

“So you were in Triple A?”

Continue reading “A hot day at the ballpark”

Homegrown crime fiction coming to Des Moines

Hey, Des Moines! My Detective Red Shaw paperbacks are coming to a bookstore near you. Like, right there in my old hometown. Soon, too!

I’ll let you know when they arrive, and then I’ll tell you where.

Guesses are more than welcome in the meantime.

Maybe there’s a clue or two somewhere here, maybe some evidence.

B.J.

Fiction and the old neighborhood

No one has asked me yet, but I have the answer.

The question has to do with the title of my new Detective Red Shaw novel: North of Grand.

Why that? I’m glad you asked.

Much of Des Moines, Iowa, is north of Grand Avenue. It cuts through the city east to west – or west to east, depending on your point of view.

I was born there, grew up there, and lived there for a long time. I worked there. Mrs. Smith and I bought our first house there, a block north of I-235 in a neighborhood known as North of Grand. We lived there when our son was born.

South of Grand was another world. It’s where my mother took me and my five siblings on occasion to marvel and gawk at big, beautiful, expensive homes when we were kids. They were especially awe-inspiring when lit up for the holidays. She took us to a different neighborhood on the southeast side sometimes, too, to see how the truly poor people lived.

We were somewhere between rich and poor, a family of seven in a three-bedroom home on Merle Hay Road. (Why seven? One divorced woman plus six kids. She slept on the sofa.)

In high school I worked at a pharmacy just a block north of Grand Avenue, delivering prescription drugs to old folks, driving a car with a manual transmission that I learned to operate in a panic on my very first day on the job.

The same little store housed the best soda fountain around, with real ice cream made right in the store. I served malts and shakes and cherry cokes and lime phosphates and great sandwiches and other treats to pretty Catholic girls from the nearby high school, to the friendly florist from across the street, to other people that I don’t remember quite so well.

I was a drug-running soda jerk. Last time I checked, the soda fountain was still there.

The people and the crimes portrayed in North of Grand are purely imaginary. Really bad things do happen in Des Moines, of course, but none that I’ve witnessed.

A young guy did threaten to kill me and a friend when we were in high school, but we managed to talk him out of it. One night years later someone reached in our son’s bedroom window at our little house on Iola Avenue and took off with a diaper bag, but that’s the closest thing to crime that came our way.

All things considered, Des Moines is a pretty good place to live or to be from. We’ve been away for years now, but it never seems that long ago.

Why North of Grand? It’s in my blood. It’s in my bones.

Read on.

B.J.