‘Write What You Know…’ but how well should you know it?

Earlier in the year, I posted this series exploring some of the classic advice to writers: you know, ‘Show, Don’t Tell,’ ‘Describe your Setting,’ and other well-meaning contradictions that make writing so much more baffling. It’s a continual struggle to know how far to take this advice—a tightrope act worthy of Barnum & Bailey, in the days that we still loved the circus.

I have decided that a better way to put the advice to ‘Write What You Know’ might be, instead, to ‘Incorporate What You Know.’ It lacks the zing of a catchy slogan, I realize, and it relies on a three-syllable vocabulary… but I caught myself following this advice when writing one of my recent novels. In my humorous adventure, Driven, targeted DMV driving instructor David Bosley (‘Deebo’ to his dangerous-driving students) grapples with a past that is pieced together in a series of prologues to several of the chapters.

What I discovered, as I wrote these, is that I was recognizing more and more of my past. Unlike Deebo, I’ve never been caught up in a conspiracy involving a federal agency, but he and I still share a few experiences, like this one:


From Driven, Chapter III

The Den

When I was being held prisoner in my childhood Sunday School, the latest in a stream of youth leaders, Margy Chapman, tried to teach us the parable of Daniel and the Lion’s Den. Margy had made the mistake of trying to approach us as a ‘cool’ equal, allowing us to call her by her first name, hard ‘g’ and all, and ultimately evoking our predatory nature as children. It was only many years later that I began to appreciate the effort she was making.

“Daniel knew,” she promised us, then raised her voice slightly to compete with our disinterested chatter. “He knew that the Lord would protect him from the lion, so he did as the Romans asked, and…”

“How?” Bertie Wilson interrupted.

Flustered already, Margy stumbled, “How…how did he…?”

“How did he know,” Bertie clarified with exaggerated impatience, “that God would protect him?”

I remember Margy brightening, here, believing in her naiveté that there was a correct answer to this question. “Well, it’s because he was one of the Lord’s children. His faith gave him the strength to…”

“What about the lion?” Bertie interjected again.

“What about…what about—?”

At age ten, I was never confident enough to begin a conflict, but joining one that had already begun was my favorite sport. “Yeah,” I joined. “Didn’t God make the lion, too?”

“Of course He did,” Margy agreed, her face creasing with uncertainty over the direction of all this.

“Well, then,” I explained, palms up as though my point was obvious, “the lion might have had faith that the Lord would provide his supper.”

“Oh, no,” Margy protested, growing genuinely concerned for our souls. “That’s very different. You see, Daniel was made in God’s image—”

“Wasn’t the lion?” I asked abruptly, but Bertie robbed me of the pleasure of hearing her answer.

“No, Dave, she’s right,” he said. “Lions are made in Astro Lion’s image.”

This was an obvious reference to a character from the Masters of the Universe—one of those three-pose cartoons that seemed to be made from cardboard cutouts, but, miraculously, found popularity in the undiscerning hearts of children. His comments set the small crowd of its fans into delighted remembrances of their favorite episodes. Gradually, we all joined into a chant.

Astro! Lion! Astro! Lion!”

Being over the age of twelve, Margy did not understand any of this. “Whoever Astro Lion is,” she stated certainly, “he is not in the Bible.”

“Well,” Greg Parsons joined in, “what was the lion’s name?” A notorious bully, it was unusual for Greg to join us in any pursuit. His sudden camaraderie against Margy delighted us into laughter.

“The lion’s name is never mentioned,” Margy foolishly admitted.

“Then how do you know it wasn’t Astro Lion?” Bertie argued, delivering his killing blow. “Maybe Astro Lion had faith that Daniel was his dinner.”

This set Sally Barlow, the youngest in the group, into tears. She simply couldn’t take the embarrassment that a poorly lip-synched stock image of a vaguely feline denizen from the Moto Universe might have woodenly unhinged his jaw to swallow Daniel alive in front of all those Romans. It truly was sacrilege. As cheaply made as the cartoon may have been, though, to our young minds it had the advantage of not being Sunday School. While Sally cried, then, the rest of us began modifying our chants to cheer Astro on against the biblical hero.

Dine! On! Daniel! Dine! On! Daniel!”

That had been one of many occasions that we sent a youth leader up our church’s basement stairs in tears, and I wondered, now, if Margy would be consoled by the knowledge that the parable seemed to be guiding my adult self. Daniel and Astro Lion were on my mind as I tossed aside the glass doors of McManus, Farthwell and Pierce, Attorneys-at-law, with my driving-school posse in tow. For me, facing an attorney on her own turf could not have been more of a lion’s den, but our encounter with the SUV had stopped me from caring…

– Chapter 3 continues, in more Words from K. Alan

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