WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW
Guest Post by Benjamin King
Image by Frank Miller
I wrote about angels. I wrote about the Roman Empire. I wrote about hoboes riding trains. No one understood what I was trying to say. Then I remembered a Mark Twain essay I had read long ago and dug it out and studied it again. It’s a convincing argument that William Shakespeare never wrote the masterful dramas attributed to his name. He couldn’t have written them, and Mark Twain explained why.
A short paraphrase of what he said is, “A butcher can’t talk lawyer talk and make it sound convincing.” Whoever wrote the plays was intimately familiar with the inner workings of the royal courts of Europe, and that didn’t mean butchering calves by the Thames River or holding horses outside a London theatre that catered to rabble, which were William Shakespeare’s only qualifications.
Twain was right you know. And I realized he was right and started writing about what I knew – really knew – and it paid off. I was fortunate in that respect, because the things I knew best were exciting things and things that a lot of authors write about anyway. And yet, many of them get it wrong.
You see I was raised on a small mountain farm that might better be described as a mini-ranch. Horses, ponies, mules, cows, pigs, rabbits, chickens, squirrels – every animal, tame or wild – was either a playmate or a possible target. I had two other lucky circumstances that influenced me from the age of three. My parents were musicians and readers. My father read strictly westerns because he also loved guns.
Everyone has absorbing interests – things we are deeply involved in – and those are the things we learn the most about. For me it was horses, guns, and guitars, in that exact order. As an adult I’ve loaded, shot, and cleaned hundreds of firearms.
It’s hard for me to accept an author of Larry McMurtry’s caliber allowing one of his principle protagonists to carry a Colt’s Dragoon revolver for 800 pages without ever having him load it with the necessary black powder, lead balls, and percussion caps. I don’t think Larry knew the difference between that particular weapon and one that shoots pre-packaged metallic cartridges, or maybe he thought no one else did.
In the first book of my series about a young country singer and guitar player, When a Lady Lies, I use a symbol that enhances the mystery – a collection of old pistols. Those guns are in my mother-in-law’s gun cabinet. I’ve cleaned them and shot them and can describe one so accurately you feel it in your hand. In the sequel, I switch to percussion pistols and have both the victim and the falsely accused protagonist portrayed as Civil War era gun enthusiasts. I own one of those, too.
I was lucky. I absorbed volumes of exciting material without really trying. It was part of my environment. If you want to write murder mysteries or psychological thrillers about guns and the way they operate and feel and have no real experience to draw on, there is a ton of online material you could read. But I suggest you take the time to go to a gun store, explain your situation to the owner, and have him let you hold a real one in your hand. It’s a powerful feeling. Who knows? You may end up on the firing range, which would enhance your writing to the Nth power.
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BENJAMIN KING is a writer, world traveler, sculptor, and professional musician. He had his first country song published in 1971 and followed that with numerous magazine articles, a volume of short stories, and a future-fantasy novel. His colorful characters are drawn from the eventful life he has pursued.