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Writing About What You Don’t Know—Carl Vonderau

Carl Vonderau is the author of thrillers Muderabilia and Saving Myles. You can find out more about him on his website, or by clicking here, read his last post here, and buy his books here.

The age-old adage for writers is to write about what you know. My philosophy is to write about what you would like to know…and then fill it in with what you do know.

My first book was called Murderabilia. The protagonist was hiding a terrible secret. His father was a serial killer who photographed his female victims. So did I write about what I knew? Dad had his hobbies, but that wasn’t one of them. So how did I get into the minds of a serial killer and the son of a serial killer? The first part wasn’t so pleasant. I read about serial killers and what might have motivated them. Many were born with sociopathic brains that just needed to be triggered. Born crazy doesn’t cut it for fiction writers. The reader must feel a reason for the killer’s actions. The father in my book was triggered by terrible childhood abuse from his mother. As Wordsworth said, “The child is the father of the man.” Did I have any experience of childhood abuse? None. Well, maybe if you count being raised as a Christian Scientist. But not really.

The next question I had was what is it like to be the child of a serial killer? Again, I had to do some research. I read a book by Melissa Moore, the daughter of the Green River Killer, and articles about Kari Rawson, the daughter of BTK. I also went to the internet to learn about the experiences of children of other serial killers. The emotional core I wanted to concentrate on was how the stigma affected the killers’ children. I could imagine the terrible guilt and shame these people had to feel. I saw all the questions they would ask themselves. Like: Who should I tell about my father? What does it mean that I loved a father who could do that to people? When do I reveal to my children the terrible legacy that they share? Is there a genetic component that I or my children might be carrying? These questions produced real emotions based on experiences I never had.

My next book, Saving Myles, was published this past August. It’s about a family pulled apart because of a workaholic father and a troubled teenager. The parents sent their son to a residential treatment center and he came home a year later, seemingly cured. Then he snuck off to Mexico to do a drug deal, only to be kidnapped. The parents had to get involved in money laundering to save him a second time.

You’re probably wondering how I know about money laundering. I’m a banker so…personal experience? I did once have a potential client in Montreal who seemed to have a project in Northern Quebec that looked like a front for money laundering. But other than that? Not really.

So I had to go out to experts to grab some knowledge. An organization that helped was the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists. This is a worldwide organization with thousands of members. They train people in the financial industry on how to spot and report money laundering. I took a few of their courses and went to some of their meetings. I was the only writer, which they must have found weird. I soon learned that one of the principal ways money is laundered is through international trade, which I used to finance. It’s estimated that 7% of all U.S. trade actually involves money laundering. My banking experience also led me to invent a way to launder money I haven’t seen anywhere in the literature.

Other people also helped me. Through my attendance of the International Thriller Writer Conference I made contacts at the FBI and the DEA who talked to me and listened to my ideas. Again, the key was gaining knowledge I didn’t have, and then combining it with what I already knew.

One of the interesting stories I heard involved potatoes. A Latin American drug cartel used its cash to buy potatoes in Idaho. They shipped them to Latin America and sold them to food producers, presumably to make French fries. The creativity used in money laundering is astounding.

Another problem I had in writing Saving Myles was that much of the book is set in Tijuana. I didn’t know the city, but I have friends who work for the YMCA there. They showed introduced me to locales where the scenes could take place. I got a feeling for those settings that I tried to translate to the page. Here’s a picture of the entertainment area I used as a basis for where the kidnapping occurred.

Bottom line? If you don’t know about something you can still write about it. It’s fun to learn, and the research inspires ideas you never would have thought of without it. Then combine what you learn with what you already know.

Carl Vonderau

Carl Vonderau is the author of the Left Award-winning Murderabilia and Saving Myles. You can find out more about him on his website,, or follow him on Instagram, and/or Facebook.

This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. John DeDakis
    John DeDakis

    YES. Thank you, Carl, for the reminder that writing what you know only gets you so far.

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      And sometimes it’s more fun to write about something you just learned about.

  2. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    I love writing about stuff that I need to research. Nothing like an excuse to be nosy. I mean, learn.

  3. Avatar

    Your books sound great, and will go on my TBR list. Your “write what you want to know” reminds me of a lecture given by the prolific author Stuart Kaminsky, who wrote about diverse worlds that he loved exploring.

  4. Carl Vonderau
    Carl Vonderau

    Thank you. I like exploring different settings and crimes I don’t know about.

  5. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Carl — I very much enjoyed (and related to) this post. Like you, I do boatloads of research—with professionals whenever possible. Just last week, I spoke with the warden at Idaho Maximum Security Institution (IMSI) regarding a scene I was writing for Insidious, book seven in my crime thriller series.

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      Aren’t these people great? I spoke with someone from the San Diego County jail once and he gave me an hour of information.

  6. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Carl, thanks for your fascinating blog! I think some of my best writing has come from a need to do extensive research to fill in the deep valleys of what I don’t know. And that research can make us and our readers smarter!

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      Very true.

  7. TK Sheffield
    TK Sheffield

    I enjoyed this post! I appreciate the comment about money l*aundering. It’s a similar sentiment what Lee Child said during his research for the first book in the Jack Reacher series.

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      If Lee Child does it, we must be doing something right.

  8. Colleen Winter
    Colleen Winter

    Researching what I don’t know is one of my favourite parts of the process. It’s so exciting to learn and to fuel your ideas with your latest research. ‘Write about what you would like to know,’ captures it perfectly.

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      It is fun. If you don’t get sucked down the rabbit hole and don’t write the book. Or try to put in everything you learned.

  9. Avatar
    Margaret Mizushima

    I love both of your books, Carl! And thanks for sharing your research in this post. Write what you know and research what you don’t! 🙂

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      Thanks, Margaret. That means a lot to me. Good advice.

  10. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Good post! I have several books next to me right now that are research books as I work on a new novel. Research is fun and it makes us all more interesting. Good luck with your books!

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      It does. People love to hear about this stuff. Although when I learned about serial killers I kept that more to myself.

  11. Joy Ann Ribar
    Joy Ann Ribar

    Okay, Carl, I love everything about this post. I think it’s crazy that an Anti-Money Laundering organization exists and that you were able to find out about said organization! It’s important for all of us to learn what it takes to do good research to make our writing authentic. My most asked questions at book events involve research or whether or not I have first hand experiences. A lot of times, I don’t, but it’s comforting to know there are places to go to get the right answers. I love doing research, even if it leads me into a black hole!

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      I can’t remember how I found out about this organization. But it has thousands of members. I think I was the only crime writer. I went to some meetings and they thought I was pretty weird.

  12. Avatar
    Marie Sutro

    Great advice! A little work goes a long way!!

  13. Valerie Biel
    Valerie Biel

    I agree — you can always learn about things you don’t know but want to include in your books. I think it’s what makes writing a lot of fun! And as for money laundering, I thought the TV Show Ozark provided a pretty good education on that. LOL

    1. Carl Vonderau
      Carl Vonderau

      Yes, Ozark was great. But I don’t think they’d get away with the money laundering schemes portrayed there.

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