“Write what you know” is a piece of advice that pros and novices alike have heard from time immemorial, and it’s difficult to argue with the logic—in principle, at least. But where does that advice leave an author who writes about serial killers, presumably (and hopefully!) without first-hand knowledge of the subject?
I posed that question to prolific author John Lutz, whose serial killer novel PULSE is due for release from Kensington Publishing Corp. this month. According to Lutz, writing what you know has some necessary limits and isn’t always a prerequisite for an authentic novel:
“A former poet laureate from St. Louis, Howard Nemerov, wrote a poem concerning that subject,” Lutz said, “titled The Writers Group: ‘They wrote about what they knew/It didn’t take long.’
“Many times I’ve sat on panels discussing murder, rape, and mayhem, with people most of whom were afraid to step on a spider.”
The secret to a memorable serial killer novel, one that stands apart in a very popular genre, Lutz added, is the same thing that makes any book, of any genre, a memorable one: good characters.
“Definitely it hinges on character,” he explained, “as does most of what matters in fiction. Readers also seem interested in reading about the childhoods of serial killers, which provide motivation. Lurking in the background of serial killer novels are real serial killers; readers begin the first page knowing such brutal and random killers actually exist. This gives the novels a certain credibility going in.”
Lutz’s characters in PULSE include Frank Quinn, a former New York homicide detective with a knack for tracking down serial killers. Quinn set out on his own as a private investigator after leaving the NYPD, and his current case involves a vicious serial killer named Daniel Danielle. Or possibly Danielle Daniel. It all depends on whether the killer is wearing man’s clothing or cross dressing as a woman.
Daniel/Danielle may have died during a Florida hurricane 10 years earlier, but it’s possible that the killer escaped from the police during the storm. Either that or a copycat killer has taken over where the original murderer left off and now is operating on Quinn’s home turf in New York. Whether the killer is Daniel/Danielle or an imitator, Quinn has his work cut out for him.
Although Lutz is writing about serial killers these days, that hasn’t always been the case. He’s published more than 45 novels and hundreds of short stories, in genres ranging from political suspense, to humor, to espionage, to both historical and futuristic fiction, to thrillers.Picking a genre for the next book—and there probably always will be a next book for Lutz, who says that “I really do enjoy writing as much now as when I began. Motivation is no problem.”—is based in part on what grabs his interest and in part on what happens to be selling.
“Usually, I sign multiple contracts, so the genre is set for X number of books,” Lutz said. “When the contract has been fulfilled, I ask myself what sort of books I want to write. The publisher decides what sort of books it wants to buy. Then I decide I want to write the sort of books the publisher wants to buy.”
Lutz said that he couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be a writer.
“I was greatly influenced by Ray Bradbury,” Lutz said, “who did amazing things with words and demonstrated what was possible. Also writers like Saki, Hemingway, Chandler . . . the usual suspects. It was something of a struggle, but looking back I think I was lucky and began publishing with some regularity when I was in my twenties.”
Lutz isn’t in his twenties any longer, although he was quick to point out that he is “better looking than my photographs.” Along the way he’s collected a batch of awards, honors, and success stories.
Past president of the Mystery Writers of America and the Private Eye Writers of America, Lutz’s honors include the Edgar Award (from the Mystery Writers), the Shamus Award and a Life Achievement Award (both from the Private Eye Writers), and the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Lifetime Achievement Award. His novel SWF SEEKS SAME was adapted for the screen and the film SINGLE WHITE FEMALE with Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh was a hit. Another novel, THE EX, was made into an original HBO movie of the same name.
Lutz seems to be following his own advice for aspiring authors:
“Write, write. Write some more.”
Lutz has published more than 45 novels and hundreds of short stories. He’s won the Edgar, Shamus, PWA Life Achievement Award, and Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer award. His work has been translated into almost every language and adapted for almost every medium.
To learn more about John Lutz, please visit his website.