Writing What I Don’t Know


KayeGeorgeby Kaye George

Sure, I write what I know. Sometimes. For the Fat Cat series, which I write as Janet Cantrell, I model the tubby tabby after one of my own rescued ferals. I use the setting of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and I lived in Minnetonka for a few years. (And love that area!) I actually try out all the recipes in the books, the ones for people—dessert bars—and the ones for cats—healthy cat treats.

I’ve studied up on investigating murders, taken courses online, Writers’ Police Academy, and Citizens’ Police Academy in Austin. I own a couple of shelves of books on the various aspects of the subject.

But there’s one big thing I don’t write from experience. The actual murder. I haven’t ever killed anyone and don’t expect to. I have to imagine that part and piece it together from things I’ve read, seen, and talked about.

So most of the Fat Cat series is written from what I know.

9781611875706_SMBut I have another series that’s far different. It’s my People of the Wind series, which I write as Kaye George, and it features a Neanderthal tribe, set about 30,000 years ago. On the surface, it would seem there’s not much I could write from personal experience for this series. For a long time, Neanderthals weren’t considered human, but with research and the sequencing of their genome, much has changed.

What don’t we know about them?

We don’t know exactly what they looked like, although one genome is of a red-headed, freckled person.

We don’t know what they sounded like, or even if they could speak.

We don’t know their social structure. We don’t know exactly how they hunted.

We don’t know if they used medicine, made jewelry, buried their dead, painted their bodies, how they dressed and wore their hair, and a lot more.

But we have theories and indications. Many of the theories conflict, which is great for me. I can pick the ones that suit my purposes.

As stated above, at least some were redheads. For my purposes, I have some brunets and blonds in the tribe also. I’ve given the males hairy bodies, since today they still have them.

There is some indication that they could speak—that their anatomy allowed it. I chose a middle ground here and gave them speech capabilities, but limited its use. The leader speaks on momentous occasions. She stands and gives official pronouncements. Once it’s said, what she says goes. For everyday, normal communication, I turned to a piece of anatomy that differs from ours. They had bigger brains. I racked mine, trying to think of what the extra brain volume could be used for. I came up with telepathy, as well as heightened senses of smell and hearing. I modeled this partly after the Australian Aborigines and their long-distance telepathy. It was fun to devise a system whereby thoughts could be private or public, and could accidentally leak to the wrong person, of course.

A couple of Neanderthal villages have been found, a notable one at Molodova in Ukraine, and I sized the tribe according to those, with about two dozen members, most related, but some having joined from other tribes. I let them have get-togethers with the other tribes for trading and socialization, much like Native American powwows today. I rejected the suspicion that there may have been cannibalization. The evidence is flimsy and, well, I don’t like it. I structured their dwellings after the same Ukrainian village from 42,000 BCE. They were sturdy houses made of pelts and supported by mammoth tusks, but they were large communal buildings and it suited my story better to have smaller ones and more of them.

One more word on social structure. The tribe is matriarchal and ruled by a female elder. This makes sense to me, since primitive beings with no knowledge of modern biology wouldn’t know, in all cases, who fathered a child, but they would know who the mother was.

The hunts were very fun to plan and envision. Many researchers doubt that the Neanderthals threw spears, but mine did. Medicine, jewelry, music, and many other things were based on research, but are the result of my world-building.

That’s what this series involves—world-building. One that used to exist long before there was any way to keep records, except for fossils and DNA.

However, I do believe that people are people and have always been basically the same creatures inside. Laughter, tears, affection, maybe even love, sadness, jealousy, politics, and cliques are things everyone knows and, I think, has always known.

Honestly, I could go on for hours about the fun research I’ve done for this series, but I don’t have the space!

The balance between what I know from experience and what I don’t for these two series is vastly different, as you can see. So I’m writing what I know and what I don’t know for both of them.

Kaye George, national bestselling and multiple-award-winning author, writes several mystery series: Imogene Duckworthy, Cressa Carraway (Barking Rain Press), People of the Wind (Untreed Reads), and, as Janet Cantrell, the Fat Cat cozy mysteries (Berkley Prime Crime). Her short stories appear in anthologies, magazines, and her own collection, A Patchwork of Stories.


5 thoughts on “Writing What I Don’t Know

  1. ingleewomen

    I loved this book (and the cat ones too). How do you set a murder that has to be solved among people who are telepathic? I don’t think I could have done it, but Kaye George does.

  2. marilynlevinson

    I enjoyed reading this blog. I love what you’ve done with your People of the Wind series. The telepathy means of communication works well. And they’e darn good mysteries, too.


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