Have Pen, Will Travel

Keith Souter is a Scottish-born writer living in England within an arrow’s shot of ruins of a medieval castle. A part time doctor, he writes medical books and general non-fiction books. He also writes crime fiction under his own name and Westerns as Clay More. Souter’s novel Raw Deal at Pasco Springs was reprinted as the debut title in The Western Fictioneers (e-book) Library.

Many moons ago, as a youngster I used to sit riveted to the floor in front of a small nine-inch, black and white television and watch suave Richard Boone as Paladin, a gentleman gunfighter solve some mystery or dispute, using both his brains and his weaponry. He gave out calling cards with the picture of a white chess knight and the words ‘Have Gun- Will Travel’ emblazoned across it. For that half hour I was transported back to the Old West.

It was not long before I discovered the joys of reading westerns. I devoured all the novels that my father had lying about the house by the likes of Max Brand, Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. I dreamed of being able to conjure up tales such as they were able to tell.

I started writing children’s stories for magazines when I was studying medicine at Dundee University in Scotland. Inevitably, I longed to have my name on the spine of an actual book. It was then that I came across that old adage, ‘write about what you know.’ It is one of the nuggets of writing wisdom, except it can be a bit of a stumbling block, because it is often misinterpreted.

In my case as a medical doctor I assumed that it mean that I should write a medical thriller or maybe a medical romance. The problem was, that I worked in medicine and didn’t want to spend my thinking and writing time in medicine. So I had several false starts on various non-medical novels, and like most writers I have a drawer full of opening chapters for several books that never saw the light.

Then it dawned on me. It didn’t mean that I had to write exclusively about a medical world, but that I should use my medical knowledge to really make a character stand out and be believable. Or I should be able to drip in details about drugs, operations, or snippets of medical history. And that is just what I did in my first western novel Raw Deal at Pasco Springs. I did the same with several other westerns before turning to crime! I created an island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and peopled it with believable characters, including the local doctor, who doubles as a police surgeon. And here my Inspector McKinnon can solve crimes using his brains rather than depending upon forensic science and DNA.

Crossing one genre gives you the confidence to do it again. The bridge that I use, which allows me to adopt the ‘Have Pen – Will Travel’ approach, is medicine. I am able to create believable medical situations. For example, I have very much enjoyed doing this in the ‘shared world’ of Wolf Creek, where my character, Dr Logan Munro is the town doctor. Similarly, I use it in my historical novels, which are set in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

In addition to fiction I write non-fiction books and here again I cross genres. I write about medicine and health, which is an extension of my work as a doctor and medical journalist, and I write books about sport, science, history and games. The bridge is not always medicine, may be another of my special interests. As a western novelist I have immersed myself in nineteenth century history. One result was a book that linked up Victorian quackery, magical entertainment and fraudulent spiritualist mediums, Medical Meddlers, Mediums and Magicians – the Victorian era of Credulity. It had all been sparked by my interest in the pseudo-science of Phrenology, which was in vogue in the nineteenth century. Phrenologists asserted that the lumps and bumps on the head reflected the convulsions of the brain, and that the character of an individual could be determined by having the head read by a phrenologist. From a Victorian perspective, it was totally plausible. Having written the book I picked up my pen and travelled over to the Wild West and wrote a tale for Western Fictioneers’ latest anthology Six-Guns and Slay Bells: a Creepy Cowboy Christmas. My story is called Snake Oil and is about a creepy phrenological snake oil salesman.

I then travelled across another genre, this time back to my roots as a children’s writer. My latest novel The Curse of the Body Snatchers is for 8-13 years olds and is set in Victorian London. It too is a ghost story with a mysterious phrenologist and mesmerist. And the plot revolves around medicine. Essentially, my message is that you don’t have to set your story in your relevant world. What you can do is drop in a character that shows your expertise. That way, you can use your pen to travel across the genres. Happy travelling.

4 thoughts on “Have Pen, Will Travel

  1. Keith, this is a wonderful article, and I would love to use it in my creative writing class, if you don't mind. So many of my beginning writers have come across that stumbling block (write what you know) and don't know how to get around it. You really described it well, and how to overcome it. I always enjoy your posts and getting to know you better. I loved Dr. Munro!

  2. Keith, this is the best explanation of the "write what you know" bit of wisdom. You sure did that with Dr. Munro–what a great character! I love patent medicines and thoroughly enjoyed your story in Six Guns and Slay Bells.

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