Write about the things you know

In my previous post, I talked about what it’s like to actually hop a train. Many times, I read passages in books that were written by people with no personal experience with the things they write about. How do I know they lack experience? Simple. They make mistakes.

Like what, you say? Like M16 rifles don't shoot .30 caliber bullets. Revolvers don't have safeties. Rolls Royces don't have sealed engine compartments. The steel hull on a 900-foot oil tanker is 3/4 of an inch thick, not 3 or 4 feet thick. Little things like that bother me, because I read them and think, "Is this story really plausible? He must not have ever seen a xxxxxx, because if he had, he'd never have said, xxxxxxx"

As a lover of machines, I write about the things I know. When you open Look Me in the Eye and read what it’s like to run the lighting console at a concert in a sold-out sports arena, be assured that I am writing from personal experience. I am not making it up or guessing. It’s an unforgettable experience, pushing those sliders and hearing the crowd roar and come alive.

And as you will learn from my description, it’s a wonderful life in many ways. It has its ups and downs, but I’d still encourage any young reader to follow in my footsteps in music, theatre, or performance.

Creative people are the future of our country. Creative thought is one area where the United States still leads the world.

What about more down to earth things? Well, when I write about riding freight trains, I speak from experience there, too. Thirty years ago, I rode the rails over much of New England. I wouldn’t recommend you try that, nor would do that again, for a number of reasons. First, the rail infrastructure in New England is in much better shape today. That means the trains run faster. When I hopped freights, I got on at a walking pace, and the trains seldom hit 40 miles an hour. Today’s freights can run twice that speed. Second, there are not so many places to ride. Much of today’s cargo is locked up, and you can’t get in. And if you do get in, rail yards have camera, scanners, and rail police to find you and arrest you. And they’re a lot more efficient than in years past.

So don’t go hop a freight train. Or if you do, don’t say I put you up to it. Because I didn’t. I just told you what it’s like.

If you want freedom today, try a motorcycle. It’s more direct, safer, and has the potential for staying totally legal. Of course, I didn’t stay totally legal, and you may not either, but I was legal enough that I’m still on the loose to write about it.

I had an old Honda 750 that I rode to almost every state in the continental United States, and all the provinces in Canada. I rode the Trans-Canada highway when it was a straight dirt track, four lanes wide, all the way to the horizon. It was a rough ride at 20 miles an hour as the wheels went up and down for every washboard and rut. But it smoothed out wonderfully at 70, when the wheels weren’t on the ground to hammer you. The rooster tail of dust stretched for miles behind me.

Some of the places in the far north, they’d never seen a motorcycle before. We’d refuel the bike from drums of aviation fuel brought in for the seaplanes. People told me to carry a heavy rifle, for the bears and other animals, but the only predators that ever gave me trouble on those trips were two-legged. Luckily, I made it through those years with nothing more than a few warning shots fired. My friend Holly Kennedy, author of the Penny Tree, lives in Bear Country now, and sends down photos. As far as I know, she does not shoot her bears, either.

I boated for many years, too. I grew up around boats. My grandfather had them, down south, big old cruisers. My Uncle Bob and his girl would lay on the foredeck, and I’d speed around looking for buoys and other fun things to run over. Sort of like bumper cars on the water. My friend Pat Wood – author of Lottery – she’s a sailor, too. She’s had a lot of experiences of her own, sailing the Pacific. But there is one boating experience I have had, that I am 110% certain has never happened to her. I almost lost my boat, when a train – a real one – fell from the sky and the wave swamped me. Find me another person who’s had that happen, and I’ll send you one of my Free Range Aspergian hats.

I will leave it to your imagination to figure out how it occurred. One clue: Demons and demonology were NOT involved. And no railroaders lost their lives to create this story. For those diligent researchers among you, I will offer this final tidbit: That particular experience of mine made the papers, but long before Internet and search indexes existed.

Even today, thirty years later, things like that provide material from which I create the stories you read.

I hope that even the least mechanically inclined of you will agree, stories that include machines can be fun. And I only write about the machines I know.

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay will give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick. 


The Anti-Wife said…
It's not just things, it's also emotions. It annoys me when someone tries to describe an emotion in a situation and you know they've never experienced it. They only touch the surface and never find the essence.

Great post.
Holly Kennedy said…
I'm okay with boats, but motorbikes terrify me. Even now, when I walk up to one, I feel myself start to tremble.

My cousin gave me my one and only motorbike ride when I was sixteen. He showed off in front of his friends. He went too fast. He took a corner too sharp and we slid out sideways on a gravel road. It was horrible.

Later, when he was older, he and his brother, both married and with kids, drove to the US from Canada on vacation. One of them was hit by a 15 yr old girl who'd 'borrowed' her dad's van. He died at the scene and his wife had a horrific time getting his body back to Canada.

Five years later, his brother went down to the US again with a friend, determined not to let what had happened dampen his love for biking (which I certainly understand). Sadly, though, two days into his trip, a drunk driver went through a stop sign and hit him. He, too, died at the scene.

I could NEVER describe the mechanics of a motorbike (and nor would I attempt to) but I think I could nail the fear of riding one or the emotional loss of having lost a husband or father from having done so.
kristen spina said…
Ditto on the emotions, per anti-wife. And yes, great post. I can't wait to read your book.
MaNiC MoMMy™ said…
I cringe when I find inaccuracies in books or magazines, or typos on signs or pamphlets, or when I go to a restaurant and they have on the menu: Ceasar salad.

That one, in particular, makes me crazy!
Hi John- Great blog! I don't know much about the mechanics of things, so I'm afraid I'm easily fooled. But I know what you mean.

Can't wait to read your book!

Karen (Lavinia)
So true. One of the first men I ever worked for had a great line I've never forgotten. Know what you know. And know what you DON'T know. Keeps one out of some trouble. I started writing a medical thriller with an autism theme many years ago. Every word was agony. I just didn't have the medical side down. Then my Mom lit with autism poured out of me. That part I knew. All too well.

Tena Russ said…
John, I just read your fascinating description of riding the rails. You are one terrific writer. Even a non-machine lover like me was engaged. It's all in the details... Plus, you've got "voice" going. I think you might use this in your next novel.
Sandra Cormier said…
With my first book, I had to research the snot out of things like South Pacific islands and cruise ships. I peppered my friends with questions about cruise ships, since I'd never been on one.

My MC suffered a snake bite, and I carefully researched all the poisonous snakes in the region. She was enroute to New Zealand and had looked up treatment methods.

When my aunt (who lives in New Zealand) read my first draft, she informed me that there were no snakes in New Zealand, so why would the MC look up treatment methods?

It's that kind of stuff that throws the reader right out of the story.
TR said…
Great post, John. The old Fall River line used to run on the tracks behind my home in North Easton. My parents warned me to stay away, so of course I didn't. My friends and I had two games of chicken we played on the railroad bridge. One was just creeping across on the outside toe-hold of the old metal bridge, and the other was doing it while a train passed under. It was probably the scariest and dumbest thing I did as I kid. Dares were a daily challenge then. Your post got me thinking about what we did to prove ourselves to others.
Sandra Cormier said…
My mom said a favourite game in Saint John, NB was to jump from roof to roof of the tenement flats in the harbour area.
Adrienne said…
"I almost lost my boat, when a train – a real one – fell from the sky and the wave swamped me."

Dude . . . just . . .dude.
Holly Kennedy said…
That train thing?
It could only happen to you, John.
I know this now having read 80% of LOOK ME IN THE EYE. Your life is filled with moments that seem to choose you. You'll have to blog an entire post about the train flying off that bridge for us :)
Trish Ryan said…
I grew up around boats, too, although I'm ashamed to admit that I was much too busy wondering if I looked fat in my bathing suit to pay much attention to the mechanics. Hubby and I are headed up to Maine this weekend, where my dear father will try once again to teach me how to get the boat out of the harbor without severing the ropes of 110 lobster traps on my way through.

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