Writing What I Know

If you’ve read the blurbs and opening scenes for the two books, you’ve noticed a striking similarity. Both feature an archaeologist as a main character. And the archaeologist is a woman. But that’s where the similarity ends. They really are two different books.

“Write what you know.”

Every writer’s heard it a hundred times. It makes sense. You can give people a lot of insight into a job or hobby or place they know little about. You can make your characters’ jobs and approaches to their work realistic. You can make a place come alive.

When I tell people I’m an archaeologist, I get a lot of comments like, “Oh, wow, that’s so cool,” or, “I wish I did something that interesting.” And then come the inevitable questions about digging up dinosaurs and buried gold. . . . But that’s a whole other off-topic subject.

Archaeology’s one of those jobs that people think they understand. (But sorry folks, we don’t do dinosaurs and the gold is rare.) After all, it’s a popular theme in movies and mysteries. Who hasn’t heard of Indiana Jones or the curse of King Tut’s tomb? It’s exciting and adventurous, right? Well, not always. Remember – I suggested reading archaeological site reports as a cure for insomnia.

The key is finding the balance between too little and too much detail about what you know. Too little, and a reader won’t get a good feel for what the character does or where he is. Too much, and the reader drops the book from information overload. Those are bad things.

So I’ve tried to find that balance for Madeleine O’Brien and Catherine/Katharine Donnelly in these books. In different ways, the women show different sides of archaeology. Katharine’s a “pure” academic. She does grant-funded research in Guatemala. Madeleine’s in academia, but she specializes in cultural resources management. She does work-for-hire to help clients meet various laws and regulations. Catherine works for the government. She makes sure her agency meets its legal responsibilities for historic preservation.

You’ll get to see these women at their day jobs – and me “writing what I know.” And you’ll get a more realistic description of archaeology than you find in most novels or movies. But work is just part of the stories. These women don’t know it in those opening scenes, but their lives are going to get a lot more interesting – even without dinosaurs or buried gold.

More on the “archaeology/time travel” book next week. Also, I’ve added a few short snippets involving the main characters for each book. You can find them under the main book headings on the menu at the top of this page. I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.

9 thoughts on “Writing What I Know

  1. I’m working on them, Paula! I’m thinking I should post a sample paragraph or two from a report I’ve written – just to show how different the day-job writing is from fiction….


  2. Pingback: Versatile — Sunshine — 7 x 7 « jmmcdowell

  3. Thought I’d pop on over to this post as you described it as the most underrated for the 7×7 Award. I’m all about supporting underdogs, so that’s why I got curious.

    I love how you explain your reasons for writing about these protags and their careers. Writing what you know is like treading a thin line because your audience is going to have such a wide range of knowledge. You’re sure to bore one person while intriguing another!

    But in your case, I think you have the right hook. Archaeology isn’t something many of us know even a smidge about, so you’re probably safe with the amount of detail that you write.

    Good luck and congrats again on your awards!


    • Thanks again, Kate! So many people think archaeology is a “cool” or “exotic” thing to do. And, hey, it can be. So I’m lucky that’s “what I know” for incorporating into fiction.

      This was an early post, and I know not many people have seen it, even people who follow my blog. It’s hard when you start following someone to go back and read the earlier posts, especially if it’s a well-established blogger. So I like the way the 7 x 7 Award makes it easy for people to click on posts they might not have seen otherwise.


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