Show, don’t tell. Only use active verbs. And write what you know.
Years ago, I attended a writers’ workshop in Port Townsend, Washington. Ursula Hegi (Stones in the River) described fact-checking the scene of a restaurant kitchen fire for a new novel (The Vision of Emma Blau). She called the local fire department. Grease splattering, an old wood-frame building. How would the flames travel up a dumb-waiter? How quickly could the fire engulf the building, she wanted to know? Please hold, the young fireman said, unlucky enough to have answered the phone. Straightaway, the fire chief was on the line and Ms. Hegi was explaining herself out of felony arson.
If only she’d taken that rule to heart: write what you know.
I’ve been poring away at writing a novel for—don’t ask how long. After all, it’s a labor of love, so who cares? Every day, those invisible cookies on my laptop are leading Wall Street marketers astray. In the past year, I’ve searched for a 20th century herringbone driving cap, a warehouse property in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, red stilettos, and hybrid golf clubs.
The flip side of write what you know? Every bit of fiction—short stories, novels, essays—is autobiographical. You have to write what you know. There’s no other way because creativity comes from deep inside, drilled down from a watery, preternatural, incontrovertible well of the past. (Reminds me of another adage: In order to write, live.)
So don’t worry about it. Write what you know. And look up the rest. Keep those wolves of Wall Street guessing.