Tag Archives: write what you know

On the art of writing what you know

Stars in Orion's beltI guess you guys all know I write mainly space opera. So you might be forgiven for raising an incredulous eyebrow (maybe even two) when I talk about writing what I know. And sure, I take out the space opera tool kit for the space bits. FTL travel, artificial gravity, shields to divert radiation (and attacks) etc etc. But not everything happens out there in the wide black. I usually have some goings-on planetside. And the WIP is no exception.

Senior Commander Thad Butcher was Grand Admiral Saahren’s adjutant in the Iron Admiral series, but this time, he’s getting his own story. Newly promoted to captain after the events chronicled in the Iron Admiral, he’s gone home to Validor for a brief holiday before he takes up his new command – a battle cruiser. It’s a boyhood dream come true. But he arrives on planet just in time to become embroiled in an attack on the Ruling family, where he’s reunited with Tarlyn, who had been the unattainable love of his life before he left Validor, aged seventeen, to attend the Fleet Academy.

I’ve had a vague plot floating in my head for several years now, but distilling that ephemeral essence into a working story takes time. Although we’ll get back up into space later down the track, at the moment Thad and Tarlyn are on a boat, heading for a meeting with the Ptorix.

And this gives the opportunity to write what I know.

Several months ago I was privileged to go on a three-day sail in the Whitsunday Islands off Queensland. It was a memorable experience, and one of those appears in the WIP. Thad and Tarlyn take a boat out of a bay between two headlands. That’s based on my experience when we sailed through the Solway Passage, with its churning waters and whirlpools, all overlooked by a stormy sky and the towering red cliffs of a distant island. My scene isn’t exactly the same, but I’ve drawn on that journey to lend some colour.IMG_8524_HDR

But that’s not the end of the sea adventure, and here I dragged out another recent experience, when I went to horizontal Falls two years ago (gosh, is that really so long ago)? I wrote about it here. I’ll be using that image, of a tide roaring through a narrow gap, in another exciting scene.

See? You can write what you know, using places not too many people on this planet have seen.

Falls approaching gap


Stay tuned, everybody. It should be a fun read, my usual combination of action, with a slurp of romance. No I haven’t thought of a name yet.

You can find out more about my Ptorix Empire books here.

Another take on writing what you know

Picture of RavindraIn the last few days I’ve been writing a short story to do with one of the major characters in my Morgan Selwood series. Admiral Ashkar Ravindra is commander of the Manesai fleet which ‘rescues’ Supertech Morgan Selwood and her shipmate, accountant Tony Jones, from a slow death on their freighter Curlew, which had a failed shift drive. Having a failed shift drive means the ship can’t go to hyperspace and is stuck with traveling through real spacetime, which means you’re going to run out of air, food and water long before you’re likely to get anywhere. That story is told in Morgan’s Choice.

Anyhow, back to Ravindra. He comes from a very regimented society, where everyone belongs to one of four classes, which are unable to breed together. The original intention of the people who genetically engineered the Manesai may well have been “a place for everyone and everyone in their place”. But as I’m sure you can appreciate, it doesn’t always work out that way.

Ravindra is a member of the military class, the Mirka. Naturally, each class had developed its own sub-classes (because people are like that) and Ravindra’s family is part of the Darya group – from which most Manesai admirals are recruited. His father was an admiral, his grand-father was an admiral, young Ravindra is going to be an admiral, he will marry the daughter of an admiral. His path is mapped out for him.

And yet, Admiral Ravindra has a tattoo. Not some small, discrete bit of ink that people wouldn’t notice. He has a bloody great vulsaur tattooed all over his right shoulder, down his back and over his bicep. That photo at top left doesn’t really do it justice, but you get the idea. So why does that matter? Ah, you see, Mirka – and most especially Darya Mirka – don’t have tattoos. Troopers have tatts, admirals don’t. So what in the wild world would have resulted in eighteen-year-old Ravindra, with school finished and the acceptance to the Fleet Academy in his pocket, having a tattoo?

You’ll have to read the story to find out.

However, I’m not giving much away to tell you it concerns a vulsaur, which looks a bit like our mythical dragon. In one scene in the story, I need to have the vulsaur take off from quite a low start. Large flying creatures (on our planet, anyway) either leap off high places and glide or they need a long takeoff. But I didn’t want to do that. So rather than emulate an albatross or a swan, the vulsaur acts like an osprey.

I took this series of pictures down the beach a couple of years ago. The osprey has gone for a bathe in the shallows. Now he’s finished and he wants to take off. Basically, with his wings raised vertically, he jumps, then brings those wings down hard. And he’s off.

Osprey lifts its wingsIMG_0684IMG_0685IMG_0686IMG_0687IMG_0688

And this is just one more example of ‘write what you know’.

You can’t beat ‘been there, done that, bought the tee-shirt’

Picture of relaxed tigerWrite what you know. It’s one of the cliches of writing and (like most of the so-called rules) it’s not true. Translate that to ‘write what you can research’ and you might be closer to the mark.

I’m in the midst of writing new tiger story, the sequel to Black Tiger. It’s a stand-alone book, starring the two main characters but the setting is quite different, and based on the tiger trade in the US.

Of course, I’ve done, am still doing, the research and I’ll check with people who know more than I do if I got it right. Thank goodness for the internet, and Google Earth. That said, you can’t beat experience. You can’t beat ‘been there, done that, bought the tee-shirt’.

The story starts in New York and I have been there, for just a few days. Sorry, I don’t heart NY. I’m not a big city person, and neither is Sally, my heroine. We both loved Central Park, though. It so happens, too, that the scene where Sally ends up in Harlem because she failed to realise she’d caught an express train also happened to me. Although I didn’t find a tiger in Harlem. Unlikely you say? Sure – but it has happened. Here’s the story of the Harlem tiger.

Now we get to the reason I’m writing this blog post, because I wrote a scene describing my abused tiger finally being released in a tiger sanctuary. Writing this, even thinking about it now, brought a tear to my eye. Why? Well, the world has turned many times since I was a child. I used to love to go to the zoo and see the animals. Our local zoo was small and these days has an enviable reputation in conservation of animals such as orang utans. But back then, like every other zoo in the world, animals were kept in concrete pens. I thought nothing of it at the time; few people did. But then opinion began to change about how animals should be kept, and the zoo changed its housing policy, first for the non-dangerous residents such as the deer and kangaroos. Then it was the big cat’s turn. Bear in mind these animals were never ill-treated. Many were born at the zoo. I’ll remember forever watching on TV as these cats (they were lions) first went into their new enclosure. And those memories are in this piece, as is footage from Carolina Tiger Rescue of a tiger being released into his new home. The writing is very raw, will probably change a little, but you get the idea. I hope. The tiger’s name is Ulysses.


Barbara Kranstein waved a hand. The forklift roared into life, edging the long prongs into the truck’s interior, then lifting. The operator backed the vehicle and the cage emerged with Ulysses standing, his tail waving. Sally felt his agitation and moved to where he could see her. Max, Bill and the forklift operator shifted the wheeled cage around and through the space between the double gates into the enclosure. It looked good, with a concrete den in a bank, a pool and wide areas of grass, as well as trees.

“We put food in the den for him,” Kranstein said, her gaze fixed on the cage.

When men were back behind the outer fence, Max pulled a cable that raised the second gate, then the cage.

Ulysses just stood for a few long moments. Sally sent him thoughts – safe, good, food, safe – and set her camera into video mode. Ash should see this, too. His head lowered, Ulysses took a step forward. Then another, patting the unfamiliar surface. A stride. And now he was beyond the gate and on the grass. The big cat threw himself down and rolled, this way, then that, wriggling his spine, chuffing his pleasure. Sally’s eyes brimmed, but she kept filming. Eyes closed, the tiger threw his head back and sucked some grass into his mouth. Another roll, back onto his stomach. Now he rose and padded over to the pool, large enough for a tiger to wallow. Once again, he patted, testing with one paw. When he walked into the water and collapsed with an almost human sigh, Sally couldn’t see properly any more.