Write What You Know

In one of my writing classes in college the teacher started us off with an essay about that old saw, ‘write what you know’, and how you actually know a lot more than you think. You might not know a lot about being an undocumented Salvadorean immigrant, but maybe you remember your first time in a strange place and how it smelled different–what it was like to encounter a completely new olfactory profile. Maybe it was alienating or freeing. But the specifics aren’t particularly important now that you have a frame for it. You’ve just leveraged your lived life to add some realism to a strange character. 

And you don’t need a lot of this. A technique that Ray Carver used a lot, and to great effect, is something I like to call ‘pointillistic realism’. He often worked in threes. Just listed three things. One was usually highly evocative:

Mel handed me the saucer of limes. I took a section, squeezed it over my drink, and stirred the ice cubes with my finger.

There’s a Tobias Wolff story where he describes a scene outside as containing ‘teenagers selling oregano to tourists in white shoes’ or a very similar phrase. When I read that the first time I knew exactly what street he was talking about. The street could be anywhere, but you know that kind of street too.

So it doesn’t take very much detail to evoke something, and your life is already full of little details you can include to flesh out scenes and characters. So much of what we experience is universal. You just have to pick the right thing. So by all means, write what you know–but you can get a lot further on that than it seems at first blush. 

What brought this to mind today is, I finally got the perfect picture of my morning commute. One of my characters takes the same train into town in the book I’m working on, and I’ve been imagining what it’s like to do for your first time.

Kenji woke Hideki up when the train got closer to San Francisco. The coastal range wrapped around South San Francisco and and joined with the highway on the left side of the train, and piers full of derelict ships and the biggest pile of garbage Hideki had ever seen greeted him on the right side. Kenji probably could have woken him up at a slightly different time. Hideki wondered if it had been intentional.

They went through a tunnel and entered the city proper. The graffiti that he’d seen hints of as they approached now showed up in force. It was like something out of a movie. There were unreadable words taller than he was, illegal but still beautiful murals, and some things that were probably ‘gang tags’, whatever it is those were. The rest was a familiar enough scene, with pallets leaning against shipping containers and garbage strewn here and there.

Maybe ‘here and there’ was the wrong term. Garbage was everywhere. But the people waiting at the 22nd street station didn’t seem to mind, or even really notice. Hideki got the impression that he’d be seeing a lot more trash than he was used to this trip.

The World Beyond Eels: Readers Wanted

Hey folks,

I’m working on a big overhaul of the fish story (now The World Beyond Eels) and just finished up Act I. It’s around 20,000 words, 50 or 60 pages. If you’re interested in giving me some feedback (and, of course, reading it!), send a message to theworldbeyondeels at gmail dot com. Let me know who you are so I know you aren’t some kind of robot Russian identity theft plagiarist. 

Here’s the new prologue. 

On Tuesday, just before noon, the last fish was caught. It was a mahi-mahi. It was unceremoniously thrown off the gaffe and onto the deck of the boat, where it was beaten to death with an unremarkable baton and then gutted with a machete. The fisherman hosed it down afterwards, and the bloody water poured out of the scuppers and into the sea. It was, he would later report, delicious.

Nobody learned a valuable lesson about overfishing or climate change, or had an epiphany about coral bleaching or any of that ‘responsible’ stuff. Nobody tried to start a consciousness-raising group for kids about taking care of Earth better than their parents had.

This wasn’t because humans aren’t a clever and adaptable species. We are. We deal well, if not always wisely, with changing circumstances, with quick changes and with gradual ones, too. Think about the miracles you can pull off just with duct tape. You can look down at the jacket of your friendly neighborhood gutter punk, or all the way up to the space missions that we thought were doomed, to see all the things we’ve managed to rescue with that stuff.

No, we didn’t learn any valuable lessons about the environment because, for once, this particular fuck-up had nothing to do with the environment—on Tuesday, every living fish on the planet simply disappeared. Poof. Gone.

Just because we didn’t learn much didn’t mean that this wouldn’t bring civilization to its knees, what with all the ecological and cultural devastation. Of course all of that happened. And don’t worry, you’re going to hear all about it. I suppose most people would probably start by telling you about the tsunamis. But we’ll start somewhere a little more pedestrian. Eastern Colorado, to be specific.


A long time ago—not that long really, but never mind, it feels that way—I took a creative writing class. Not my first one, probably not my last either. It was in high school.

That school is long gone now. It was sort of experimental, and then they ran out of funding, so the experiment was over. We had three classes a day, and they were each about ninety or a hundred and twenty minutes long. Every other day you got one of the periods off. If you were doing well in class, you got to do whatever you wanted as long as you stayed on campus. We were on a university campus, so we had a lot of leeway. I spent a lot of time at the diner across the street and the main library. They let me go to the diner because they liked me.

But that’s not really important. Anyway, we had a teacher, Peter, and for the life of me I can’t remember his last name. He was one of the ones who liked you to call him just by his first name, so I guess that’s why I can’t remember it. And boy was Peter interesting. He’d done a lot during his life, but the one that was kind of most interesting is, he did some work with the Peace Corps somewhere in the Caspian region a while back. Now, for whatever reason, my school had a lot of immigrants and first-generation kids from that area (Iran too, but that’s a whole different story; it’s sad). And they liked his stories about Georgia and Kazakhstan.

So he told them. One of them stuck with me, I don’t know why. He was in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, somewhere out in the steppes, and he was sort of wandering around maybe. The details are spotty. And he stops at some place for food and a drink, I always imagined it was some dusty, leather-detailed wooden building that had withstood the winds of ages. A revenant.

Peter said it was lit by candles, but when I think back I’d guess he probably made that part up. It was lit by candles and the clientele was grungy. He got some sort of hard-bread-and-spread deal, had a beer or two or three, and the day wore on and eventually he realized he was in the middle of nowhere, and he wasn’t sober, so he decided to rent a cot and spend the night.

By now, I imagined, the inside must have been thick with cigarette smoke. Seems like the sort of place where people smoke, right? And of course the floor was dirt, it just had to be, when I would picture it in my head. The floor was dirt and the people wore fur or something, I don’t know. I was fourteen.

And the locals start sort of making fun, you know, joking around, like you do, and they decide to show him what the locals really drink. Lord only knows if this is actually what they drink, or if it’s just something they keep in the back for the one old dude who lives in the village and still drinks it. You know the kind of stuff I’m talking about. Except this one wasn’t just a dinged-up old bottle with a faded label, it was a glass jar where they measured how much you drank by measuring the level of the liquid on the side before and after. And at the bottom of the jar there was a dead snake, like the worm in a bottle of shitty tequila except, you know, a snake. The guys said they ate the snake when they were done.

I don’t remember what happened next. Peter probably finished the story and had us write a poem or something. I don’t remember what Peter had been doing in Kazakhstan or wherever, but it may have been teaching algebra. I do remember that Peter had lived in San Francisco for a while doing art, and that he had thinning hair and it was ginger, and that he had pudgy hands and some freckles on his nose, but that’s about it.

There’s a couple other things I remember but they’re not really important.

Peter was a great teacher. He turned me on to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and he put up with me being the sort of goofy kid who wanted to read Finnegan’s Wake, and he showed me some Philip K. Dick, and we read, you know, Ray Carver and the rest of the stuff you’re actually supposed to read, the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds and all those guys. (They’re all guys, except for Flannery O’Connor).

The class wasn’t really graded per se, just sort of a check/check-plus system. There was one midterm and one final. They were each a single piece of paper. “Please write either a story based on this prompt, or a personal essay.” And since the classes were so long, remember, you could do a lot with that in one period.

He handed out the prompts face-down. We flipped them over when he said to. I didn’t peek, not that sort of kid.

I wrote a satirical fantasy piece for the midterm. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was about, except that there was a scene involving climbing a rope really far.

For the final, when I flipped the page over, it said,

Please write either a story based on this prompt, or a personal essay:

On Tuesday, every fish on the planet disappeared.

Of all the things, these I remembered? The Kazakhstan story, this writing prompt, and his first name.

I guess I could probably ask somebody what his last name was.

The Fish Meta: Part 2.Meanwhile… Suggestions?

Howdy kids,

The second half of Part 2 is going to be a series of shorts from around the world about the last two weeks (in-story time obviously), with some characters you know but mostly one-off folks that you don’t. Maybe they’ll come back later, I don’t know.

Anyway, my question is–should anybody have any suggestions–any suggestions? Parts of the word you’re curious about, anybody you haven’t heard from recently, and so forth. Some ideas:

  • Jiro has a quirky hobby
  • Question Time at Westminster gets nasty
  • Amsterdam is fucked
  • Oceania is fucked
  • Water wars in North Africa
  • Fun with hákarl in Iceland
  • The Finches have a word with their butler
  • BankBuddy Park repairs
  • And so forth.

I sure hope the commentariat has suggestions 😁 not that I need them, but who doesn’t love engagement?

Liminality #3



ZACH GRAVES is: Authorized to Read and Edit

Filed 05-09-02039 09:41 AM

By HEALTHWIRE (#a83f025)


If it had been printed, there would have been a page break at that point.



We believe our Research & Development server has been compromised. At 19:06 CST yesterday (05-08-02039), an unknown device began attempting to connect over a proprietary API approximately 40000 times per second. An internal audit has determined that this is the result of a third party.

This API is currently being used in the testing of sensitive personal medical devices on a grant from the Department of Defense, and as such it is of the utmost importance that we locate and stop the individual or individuals responsible for this likely attack.


Another virtual page break.


The device in question is being developed to measure adrenaline and cortisol levels in soldiers during combat situations, with the goal of lorem ipsum dolor sit amit in order to improve lorem ipsum dolor in potential future conflicts in the sit fasdfeamit Theater.

Any tampering by third parties is unacceptable and could pose a dire security risk. We’ve been unable to glean specific information on the origin(s) of the requests, but have been able to identify that they are coming through a Comcast connection located downstream from the node in Fallen Oak, IL. Or, at any rate, they appear to be.


At least they finally got rid of that This Page Intentionally Left Blank nonsense, Zach thought, as he scrolled past yet another page break. The next section contained information on the IP Addresses being used (many) and the nature of the requests (all identical handshake initiations, it would appear).

Zach was taking notes when Cindy called back, her face materializing in front of his eye. “Well, Zimmerman, it would appear that something is indeed on fire,” she said.

“A matter of urgent national security, no less,” he said with an arched eyebrow and a hint of over-seriousness.

“For the good of this glorious nation, we must track down these evildoers,” Cindy said in the same manner.

“Shall we begin at the usual spot?”

“I’ll meet you there in twenty.” Cindy’s picture winked out of existence again.

These cases rarely amounted to much of anything, and this one seemed like another instance of an overly paranoid cover-your-ass manager assuming malice when shoddy engineering was a much more likely possibility. But, well, that’s defense contractors for you. And a certain kind of sysadmin. The kind you find in enterprise companies. Not the good kind.

Zach picked his messenger bag up from the floor and put his External Anomalies Division tablet inside, along with a bottle of water, a brownie, and a can of coffee from the refrigerated drawer in his desk. He checked that his Division-stamped .38 was in proper working condition, with full ammunition and a full battery, and then put it in his shoulder strap holster.

Zach Graves had everything he needed to do some investigating. He took his blazer off the back of the chair and put it on, then headed out the door to meet Cindy, snatching his bicycle helmet & lock from the hooks on the wall as he exited.

Liminality #2

From the outside, the headquarters of the Fallen Oak, IL Branch Regional Headquarters of the Department of External Anomalies, Federal Communications Commission Charter 15.255, looked like it sounded, which is to say, linear, deliberate, and far too large than seemed necessary at first glance. As almost all of the many agents, researchers, librarians, secretaries, hackers, and interns who worked there would tell you, it looked like that from the inside as well.

Zach Graves, Probationary Investigatory Agent III.a, was no exception.

Each floor, at least on the floors Zach had clearance for (one through five, excepting four), was laid out in a rather intentional fractal scheme, with a large central corridor branching left, right, up, and down at regular intervals, each subsequent hallway smaller than the last. It reminded him of some sort of Platonic ideal of the inside of a bird’s bones.

When Zach had started a few years ago, his office had been off one of the hallways that barely fit two people going crossways; now, he had a room off one of the coveted tertiary hallways, only two nodes away from the central corridor on the second floor. It wasn’t a corner office, exactly—indeed, the building’s design shunned the very idea of corners—but Zach did have a window for the first time in his working life.

Granted, the window looked out directly onto a disused portion of the southern face of the courthouse next door, which had been bricked in to keep the homeless out, but still, one had to measure career progress somehow.

On this particular day, Zach was busy with a Division tournament of hearts when the phone rang. He tapped his earpiece. “Yes, sir?”

“Hey, Zach. Whatever you’re working on, I’m going to need you to stop soon.”

“Well,” Zach said, typing gotta go, pick up where we left off again?, “Sure, give me a few minutes? I just need to wrap up this report.”

The other three players voiced their frustrations, not that they hadn’t all done the same rapid-fire cancellation at some point in the past. Zach empathized. The tournament was only in its second bracket, and it had already been four months.

“Call me when you’re done, OK?”

“Will do, sir,” Zach said. “Appreciate the flexibility.”

Zach waved his hand and the hearts game vanished, replaced on the monitor with the other desktop he used for actual work. He located the report and pulled it up in the editor. “In conclusion, further study is required,” he typed, and then saved it.

He skimmed the report for typos, and it looked like the autocorrect had taken care of everything he missed. And with that, he submitted An Examination of Common Causes of Wearable Climate Hardware Malfunction: FCC-EAD It would be reviewed and sent back with recommendations in 2-3 business days before finalization and publication, at which point Zach would be tasked with selecting a colleague to draft the abstract. Finally, at the end of the month, the piece would go out with the External Anomalies Division’s monthly report, and the glorious cycle of bureaucracy would begin again.

The thoughts ran through Zach’s head in the regimented language that every bureaucrat found themselves thinking in, sooner or later.

No biggie. Time to call the boss. He tapped his earpiece again. “Jeffrey Tsao,” he said, and the line started to ring.

“Zach. Thanks for getting back to me so soon.”

“No problem. What’s going on?”

“Seems we’ve got a priority-one anomaly report coming in from Healthwire. Deputy Director Freeman said it’s our number one priority, in fact. I told him I’d put my best agent on it. Called you anyway.”

Cute. “I’ll get right on it, sir. Should I give Zimmerman a ring? We usually work well together.”

There was a pause. “That would probably be best, yes. You two have done some good work lately.”

“Thank you, sir. Anything I need to know that won’t be in the file?”

“Figuring out what’s not in the file is your job, Graves.”

“Touché, sir. Well, I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

“Please do. And try to stay within the usual budget this time. I’ll talk to you later.”

Get stuck in New Atlantic City one time, Zach thought, and you never hear the end of it.

The connection closed. He tapped his earpiece twice. “Cindy Zimmerman. Video.” The plastic rectangle in front of his right eye came to life with a semi-transparent “Connecting…” flashing gently. After a moment, Cindy’s face appeared, behind her an office much like his own.

“What’s on fire this time, Graves?”

“I don’t know, but Freeman would like it dealt with quickly. At a good stopping point in whatever you’re doing?”

Cindy’s eyes refocused as she looked past the screen, through the image to whatever she was doing, and then refocused on Zach.

“God, yes. I’m doing quota work.”

“Great. Let’s both give this file a read and then re-connect?”

“Sounds good. Zimmerman out.”

Zach refocused his own eyes as the image faded out and the screen turned back into the minor irritant in front of his eye that it was most of the time. He turned to his workstation and opened his assigned case files with a practiced gesture, selected the blinking red one, and started reading it.

Liminality #1




adjective (technical)

  1. of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
  2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.




Tien wound his ATV between the short trees that dotted Superior Crater. It was dark out, and no lights shone from the ruined city ahead. Rather peaceful, really, save for the occasional small mammal that he would swerve to avoid (or at least try to). There wasn’t a human in sight, or so the trackers told him. He let himself relax. It was nice to be out of the office.

He hadn’t seen the crater first-hand before. It was pretty, just like people said, if a bit… brownish. But brown grass was better than no grass.

The vehicle chirped and he looked at the dash. Fuel heat nominal; no threats or surveillance detected; no messages… ah. He’d entered the demilitarized zone between Canada and the US. This was, of course, expected, but the lack of markings meant that he had to rely on the equipment. Tien snapped out of his daydream, stopped the vehicle, and exited. He opened one of the hatches in the rear and pulled out the checklist and a pen. He would fill most of it out on his sleevetop later–best to do the paper part of the paperwork while things were quiet, since it took longer.

With the graceless efficiency of a seasoned public servant at the Ministry of Corrections, he began filling out the tedious form. Most of the legwork had been done by the computer, but for accountability’s sake he still had to check off all the right boxes, and then sign, date, and scan it for later filing. Not like it would matter much for him, where he was going, but it was quite important for future such experiments, and a duty was a duty.

About halfway through he reached back into the hatch and pulled out a black plastic briefcase. Opening it, he set aside some paperwork and pulled out a parcel of clothing–some nondescript suit, the kind you’d see on an extra in old movies–then stripped out of his Ministry jumpsuit and into the vintage design.

Back to the clipboard. Check. Check, check… he removed a device from the hatch and unfolded it onto the ground. Check. He turned it on, check, check… it activated with a whirring sound, and his sleevetop blinked green under the suitcoat to indicate it was the right kind of sound. Check.

After putting his old clothes and all the packaging and other detritus he’d managed to produce into the hatch, he checked one last box on the form, then signed it three times, dated it, closed the hatch, and fed it into the dashboard scanner. He detached a small rod from the vehicle and put it in his breast pocket with a practiced move, then stepped onto the device he’d unfolded. Finally he plugged the device into a socket on the side of the ATV, double-checked his footing, and pushed the only button on it he hadn’t already pressed. The whirring sped up, he gripped the pair of handles that stuck up from the middle, and vanished. A moment later, when the checklist had finished scanning, an antenna rotated briefly; one more moment and the ATV began flashing and then exploded with a cold, quiet spark, leaving a vaguely ATV-shaped scar in the dormant grass.