This Writing Life--Mark Terry
Thoughts From A Professional Writer

What to write?
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March 7, 2006
Stephen King, when asked why he writes horror, has famously replied, "What makes you think I have a choice?"

I've read some of King's nonfiction and some of his stories, like "Misery" and "Gerald's Game" that could probably more accurately be called suspense or a thriller than horror, and believe King does have a choice, but...

I accept his point. Some of it's inclination. We tend to write about what we like. My fiction has almost always been mystery or thrillers. I started out writing fiction, though, with sci-fi short stories. I also dabbled a bit in horror. As I've gotten older, my taste in both writing and reading has gotten narrower (not particularly healthy) and for the most part lies in the large echoing hallways of the crime/suspense genre. It makes sense then that that's what I write.

I started writing fiction and sort of fell into nonfiction. My first publication was actually a poem, but after that it was an essay about the genetics field, then technical book reviews. My first paid publication was an essay for Traverse Magazine called "Blue Heaven," and it's nonfiction, I suppose, about why the appeal of Traverse City is the color blue (blue sky, blue water, etc). But with a degree in microbiology & public health and 18 years working in clinical genetics, cancer research and infectious disease research, it's not completely surprising that I write quite a bit in that area. My plain-jane writing styles suits the technical material, and I have an ability to take very complicated subjects and turn them into relatively easy-to-understand materials. (It's a gift born of my inability to understand the complicated subjects as complicated subjects, so in order to grasp them I have to simplify them for myself). Either way, it's helped me in my career.

My friends Eric Mayer and Mary Reed write historical mysteries. I like theirs. I don't, as a rule, like historical novels much. As a result, I sure as hell can't write one. I correct that statement--I could if I had to, but it would be a chore and I would struggle with it. It would be technically proficient--I'm a pro, after all--but I'm not sure it would have the necessary "heart."

I recently interviewed Jay MacLarty, author of the upcoming "Live Wire" and his previous 2 novels, "The Courier" and "Bagman." The main character, Simon Leonidovitch (spelling is probably wrong) is a high level security courier. He travels all over the world. So, I might add, has Jay. Jay recently read and blurbed "The Devil's Pitchfork," and when we were talking, I asked him about his research, which to me would seem quite extensive. He said, no, not that much. Certainly not as much as I did for "Pitchfork." I told him he might be surprised. I read Richard Preston's "The Hot Zone" and "The Demon in the Freezer," but everything else was pretty much pulled off the Internet as needed and built on things I already knew from years in the biotech field.

Jay kind of laughed. Jay's run restaurants, several other types of businesses, owned a small software computer, gambled professionally and is now a writer. He also likes to travel and if you check out his website,, you'll see photos of Jay in China and Italy and other exotic places. He told me that much of what he wrote tends to be primarily about things he's already familiar with, at least to some extent.

The point is, the novels I'm currently writing feel like I was meant to write them. Although I've never been in Special Forces like Derek Stillwater, I do have a degree in microbiology, worked in the field of infectious disease research, and have an interest in bioterrorism. I've written a number of articles on the subject, as well as about cutting-edge biotechnology and emerging technologies. [Writing nonfiction for a living has been something of an eye-opener, because not only do you have to force yourself to be interested in topics you might not otherwise be, you often surprise yourself by exactly what you ARE interested in].

The point is, sometimes we're well-suited for a certain type of writing. It chooses us, rather than us choosing it. That isn't to say you can't choose to write about something else because you're curious or think there's a market for it. One of the big literary agents, Evans, I believe, who also writes mystery novels (about a literary agent, go figure), has said writing about what you like is one thing, but a smarter thing to do is think a little bit more about what's marketable that happens to overlap with your own tastes and interests, then gear your work that way.

My suggestion for unpublished authors isn't very encouraging. It's, yes, think about if there's a market, but also, write the story you want to, because you're going to be with that story for a long time. And it's entirely possible it won't get published, so you'd better at least enjoy the process. But the truth is, publishing is a business, and there's not much point in building and marketing a widget that nobody wants or needs.

Mark Terry

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