Saturday, August 8, 2009

Karen Olson: Outside Her Comfort Zone

The winner of a free copy of THE MISSING INK is Beth Solheim. Congratulations!

By Karen Olson (Guest Blogger)

Every writing class, every writing instructor will tell you the same thing: Write what you know.

Writing what you know is supposed to be easier. Since it’s the familiar, you’ll be able to perhaps better evoke the emotions, the scents, the sights. You’ll be comfortable with the words, the characters, the setting. I did all that. I wrote about a police reporter (I was a print journalist for more than 20 years) working for a fictional newspaper (I worked for several newspapers throughout my career) in New Haven, Connecticut (where I was born, and I’ve lived in the vicinity almost my entire life). The characters who inhabited those books were people I knew, the restaurants were places I’d visited and dined in, the neighborhoods were ones I drove and walked through.

Writing about that world was in my comfort zone.

So what did I do? I blew off all that advice about writing what I know and wrote a book about a character and a setting I know nothing about. Pretty much everything in my new book The Missing Ink is what I don’t know. Brett Kavanaugh is a tattooist and she owns her own shop. I don’t have any tattoos and I don’t own my own business. The shop is in Las Vegas, a city I have visited exactly twice for a total of six days. My first visit was 12 years ago. The second? Last summer, after I’d already written half the book.

It’s funny, though, that something that should have been difficult to write was so easy. Once I heard Brett’s voice and started writing, I was on a roll. It was so liberating not to have to adhere to actual restaurants or streets. I created a fictional resort casino called Versailles that was so much fun, I wish it really did exist. I used a few real locations: The Venetian Grand Canal Shoppes, where Brett’s shop is located; a couple of restaurants I visited on the Strip.

I read a great book about the history of women and tattoos, which helped with the tattooing parts of the book. I went online and found tattoo blogs, a video showing how to put a tattoo machine together, and I visited a tattoo shop in New Haven.

I was completely out of my comfort zone and had the time of my life.

Have you ever tossed everything aside and written about what you don’t know?

Karen Olson's first novel in the Annie Seymour series, Sacred Cows, w
as the one and only winner of the Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award. She followed it with Secondhand Smoke, Dead of the Day, and Shot Girl before launching her new series with The Missing Ink. To learn more about Karen and her mysteries, visit her website and blog.


Sandra Parshall said...

From PDD: Everyone who leaves a comment today will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of The Missing Ink.

Terry Odell said...

I'd put everyone to sleep if I wrote what I 'know' which seems to be interpreted as 'what you do.'

I'm not a cop, nor a covert ops specialist, or even a computer genius.

But I know how to research, how to find and rely on contacts.

To me, it's more about the characters, and I think I have a decent feel for people. Some of my characters share my life experiences, and I draw on my life, but it's more for the emotional side of things, not the theme of the book.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Considering most of us write crime fiction, it's a good thing we're NOT writing what we know! :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sandra Parshall said...

John Lescroart, who writes bestselling legal mysteries, isn't a lawyer. He's an exception, though -- many editors apparently think that only lawyers can write legal mysteries or thrillers.

I'm not a veterinarian like my character Rachel, but I figure I've spent enough time and money in vet clinics to have picked up some knowledge. :-)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My latest story is about a young Marrano sailor on Columbus's first voyage. Obviously not "what I know"--but the character popped up in my head and told me all about himself, and the material about Columbus, including his own journal of the voyage, was a click away on the Internet.

Helen K said...

Since I am not an author just writing anything (even a blog post) is outside my comfort zone.

I am intrigued by your venture into tattoos. Also love the book cover.

Congratulations on the new series.

Beth Solheim said...

I ventured into the paranormal in my manuscript without ever meeting a real 'dead' ghost. It's actually fun creating what I think it would be like. Nothing ventured, nothing gained?

Vicki Lane said...

Thanks to Mr. Google and the web albums so many folks obligingly post, I've found it easy to get a real feel for places I haven't visited.

And just plain old book research is invaluable -- no, I've never visited a snake-handling church, nor been a pick pocket, nor followed a cattle drive -- but my characters do.

But I do stay pretty much in my neck of the woods. My hat is off to you, Karen, for such a gutsy move!

Karen Olson said...

Thanks, everyone at Poe's Deadly Daughters for having me here today!

Terry, it's not so much "what you do." Everyone tells anyone starting to write to write what they know. It could be why we've got so many hobby mysteries! And I think all writers do research regardless of whether they "know" something.

Sandra, you're right about the lawyers, although Michael Connelly has successfully written his Michael Haller books. Although I guess it could be argued that it's because he's Michael Connelly...

Elizabeth Spann Craig, touche!

Elizabeth Zelvin, you've definitely ventured into the "what you don't know" realm! Sounds fascinating.

Helen K, thanks for the comment on the book cover. I love it!

Beth, have you ever gone to a seance?

Vicki, I love your books and I absolutely believed you knew everything there was to know about snake handling!

Karen Olson said...

Oh, and just FYI: my website is (if you leave out the "e" you'll find a site for a very accomplished violist).

Dorte H said...

Well, the first time I tried to write a crime manuscript I chose an environment and a main character that I knew about. When I was halfway, the story had turned so boring I couldn´t go on.

I think some kind of combination between what you know and what you are able to find information about should work. At least my second and third manuscripts were entertaining to write (plus my betareaders have enjoyed them).

Suzanne said...

I read the book yesterday and loved it. Brett's voice is engaging and the story is good. I haven't been to Vegas since I was a kid, and I don't have any desire to go there--except in this series. I'm looking forward to the next one. And I'm getting my 4th tat this afternoon!

Karen Olson said...

Dorte, my first attempt at a mystery had a plot about groundwater pollution. I'd clearly spent too much time at planning and zoning meetings as a reporter! Let's just say no one will ever read that book...

Suzanne, glad you liked the book! What are the designs of your tattoos?

Kate L. said...

I enjoy Karen's reporter series, and am looking forward to reading her newest book.

As much as I love learning about new experiences, even visiting a tattoo parlor has never interested me (never mind so much as thinking about getting one!). But I find it an interesting career for a protagonist, and am curious about what I'll learn. I know I'm not alone in reading about a wide variety of topics, so why should authors be limited to what they know?

Sandra Parshall said...

Sorry I left the "e" out of Karen's website address! It's been corrected now, so clicking on "website" in the footnote to her post will take you to the right place.

Karen Olson said...

Kate, I never had much desire to visit a tattoo shop, either! Glad you liked my Annie books and hope you like this one.

Thanks for fixing the website address, Sandy. The violist's site is quite nice, though, and has a beautiful soundtrack :)

Sandra said...

I'm late coming to this, but I'm glad I did. I am just starting a mystery novel and have been wondering about this issue. I think I'm on the right track as I have a mix of things I am familiar with, things I'm needing to research, and things I'm making up.

I'll be checking out your book, Karen!

Neil Plakcy said...

I have found that I'm only successful when I'm writing outside my comfort zone-- when I can project myself into a different character and see his world through his eyes.

The characters I've written about who are closest to me are the ones who don't seem able to live and breathe on their own, much as I love them.

Walt said...

According to my missus, I attract strange people (I suspect it's bit of the decoy effect). Everyone has a story and, if you keep your mouth shut, they'll tell you theirs. I think for mystery writers, these folks are key because they lead one down paths that we haven't taken -- often for good reason. The thing is, if you try to judge them, they vanish and you're writing yourself. So you use the bits and pieces that fit and let them speak for themselves.

Beth Solheim said...

I'm the lucky winner! Thanks so much. It must have been one of my ghostly characters who guided your hand to draw my name.