Writing What You Know and Researching What You Don’t

“Clips” photo by Dan Wiedbrauk of one-candle.com via Flickr

Beginning writers are often given the advice “write what you know.” It’s not a rule, not by a long shot. It’s advice.

And it’s not even advice that applies  long-term.

It’s training wheels.

When you’re starting to write, you have a lot of brand new considerations to make. You’re learning to balance craft — storytelling, grammar, narrative, pacing, character, dialog — and the best way to do that is to do. That is, write. And if you’re spending the majority of your time researching, then you’re not writing.

Further, it can become hard to parse if your story isn’t working because of craft issues or because you’re writing about something you clearly have no experience with. It’s best to eliminate variables to help diagnose the problem. In this case, eliminating places, careers, time periods, situations, etc., that you’re unfamiliar with, means that the problems that are left are probably craft problems.

So once a writer reaches the stage where her writing feels solid enough to take on research . . . well, that’s a brand new, fabulous can of worms. Read on for a discussion of reasons to research, pitfalls to avoid, how to move beyond Wikipedia, and when/how to approach an expert . . .

Research: it’s like spinach for writers

You need to know what you’re talking about. There it is. The reason we say “write what you know.” You need to know what you’re talking about. If you’ve experienced it, all the better. If you haven’t, then you need to research it to make it something you know.

And there are three layers of knowing to consider: details/mechanics, emotions, and cultural/social structures.

Details and mechanics can always be researched. Start with a Google search. Read articles on the topic. Read books on the top (or the relevant parts of books on the topic). Visit the location. Visit museums or reenactments of the time period. Watch/read fiction with a similar setting.

You can find Writer’s Police Academy events put on around the country — very popular with mystery writers for obvious reasons. They walk writers through some routine procedures, let them learn what it feels like to be handcuffed, answer questions, and the like.

Of course, technical details can be gleaned from reading-research or watching-research, but nothing beats the real thing for the sensory experience. The smell, sound, taste, and feel of the thing/place can instantly make fiction real, regardless of how well we can “see” it.

Emotions. The way people react in certain situations and the ways they process information, grief, etc. — those are much harder to do direct research on. The best research on this count is life experience. The more situations you’ve encountered in your life, the more you know about your own reactions and the reactions of others. Some can be discerned through people-watching, and some through really engaging with fiction, but nothing beats life experience.

Have you ever read something where the character’s emotion seems totally off base and you just have to wonder, has the writer ever actually experienced the death of someone close to them? or falling in love? had their heart broken? been cheated on? lost a job? been told they had a life-changing diagnosis? been in combat? or whatever the situation is. Research/experience is important here too.

Social structures. Different social groups have different structures and rules that determine how people act. Be aware that characters from different backgrounds will act differently, whether it’s a cultural, generational, or linguistic difference. I’ve seen good writers fail miserably while attempting space-based military science fiction. They love the genre and have a grasp of the science, but absolutely no experience with the military, and it killed the realism of the character interactions in that particular setting. Can someone who’s never served write good military SF? Probably, but it’ll take a lot of research and the help of experts.

Research makes writing stronger. Like spinach.

But like Popeye, you don’t apply the spinach directly to the problem, you ingest it and let it work through you. Don’t dump research directly into the writing, let it work through you. Let it become part of your character building and creative process. Let it become part of your body and brain until you use it unconciously.

And beware the infodump-disguised-as-dialog route. That’s a bit like swaping coats and expecting facial recognition software not to find you. Savvy readers will be able to see right through that disguised research dump.

But research that’s well incorporated can heighten the reader’s sensory experience. Do you know what a morgue smells like? I don’t. Not from personal experience. But a well written scene could transport me there even if it’s not an experience I really want to have firsthand.

Research: it’s like entering the Fire Swamp

Do you know someone who’s been “doing research” on their novel for years? When you ask how the writing’s going, they tell you about this or that resource they’ve found and how it’s inspiring them, but updates on the actual writing of the story are much more sparse.

Research, as wonderful and necessary as it may be, can become a Fire Swamp for writers that prevents them from reaching their ultimate goal: the writing. Patches of lightning sand to suck you in and suffocate you. Spouts of flame. R.O.U.S.s that creep along in the shadows, tailing you, wiggling their ugly noses to stay on your scent.

The Fire Swamp is absolutely not someplace you’d like to build a summer home, but it is a place you could live quite happily for a while . . . so long as you get out before one of the three great dangers of the Fire Swamp does you in. Or rather, kills your chances of completing a project.

It’s the twists and turns of research that suck you in so that you never feel like you’ve reached the bottom, that you know enough, and can stop researching. It’s the spurt of flame that destroys one idea, so you move your feet quickly and start down a new path of research you didn’t expect to go down in order to flesh out a second idea. It’s the creeping doubt that you’re not getting it right, you need to know more before you can proceed or the critics and experts are going to eat you alive.

You may have to traverse the Fire Swamp of research. Just remember, once you go in you can make it out.

But why bother doing deep research at all? Because Wikipedia is a wonderful place to start research but a horrible place to end it.

Moving beyond Wikipedia

Wikipedia, a horrible place for your research to end. Yep, it’s worth repeating.

Wikipedia can’t tell you what a morgue smells like. It can’t express to you on a scale of 1-10 how itchy and uncomfortable a Civil War uniform is. It can show you pictures of the coast of Ireland or the Amazon rain forest or the Southwest, but it can’t tell you how the air feels on your skin in those places or the wuzziness of altitude sickness in a desert is like. Nor is it going to differentiate between technical detail and day-to-day details of certain occupations.

Consider Wikipedia on par with asking your spouse or neighbor or co-worker, hey, have you ever heard of such-n-such, and then discovering that they have a good passing knowledge of the thing. Conversational knowledge. They can give you keywords and point you in the right direction as you continue to research and read things by actual experts that is more in depth than a Wikipedia article could ever be (and eventually you can contact those experts, more on that later). Whether those are news articles, journal articles, or books.

And no, not all those resources are going to be free.

Well, not free on the internet. But if you have a library card, you can bet your ass they’re still free. You just have to do some work and carry your butt down to your library.

Only have a popular library in your town? No access to a research library (usually a university library)? Actually, you do have access to huge libraries even through a tiny little small town library. Most public libraries are connected to a state-wide network that connects both city and university collections. In Michigan it’s called MeL Cat, the Michigan eLibrary Catalog. What you can do with that website catalog is take your library card, the one from Podunk Town, and use it to check out books from the University of Michigan or Michigan State University or whoever has the book you want. And best of all, those libraries will deliver the book to your local library for free. You pick it up and check it out using your regular old library card.

If you have access to a system like this (and again, in Michigan you almost always can get access and I have to imagine other states have similar systems), you can get access to serious, vetted, in depth resources, some of which would be expensive — or impossible, if they’re out of print — to purchase on your own.

All you have to do is be patient and wait for them to be delivered. Use that time to write the next scene. You know, avoid feeling like you’re building a summer cottage in the fire swamp.

When/how to consult an expert

In the Roundtable Podcast interview “20 (more) minutes with Jeanne Cavelos,” the host remarked that Jeanne Cavelos had several appeals for help listed on her website’s front page. One of which was for experts in scientific fields she was not herself well versed in, and another appeal states, “My main character is bipolar (manic-depressive). If you are bipolar and don’t mind sharing some of your experiences…”

I agree with the Roundtable Podcast host Dave Robison about the absolute remarkableness of reaching out. As writers who are creating whole worlds in our minds or who are perhaps hard pressed to carve out time alone to do the writing, the idea that we then need to reach out to others is . . . tough sometimes. Such an easier route is to just jump on Wikipedia and call it done.

Jeanne Cavelos urged writers to do research, “whether to make the setting more real, the science more real, or the magic more real.” And divulged that when she started writing she didn’t want to ask for expert help because she felt embarrassed to not know.

She also shared what she’s found to be the best way to approach an expert: gather as much information about the subject as you can before you approach the expert — asking them to give you a crash course in the topic isn’t useful or polite — so that by the time you’re reaching out to them they know you “just have some questions that only a person can answer.” Even mentioning the time she contacted an expert in manhole covers after reading the book the expert had written.

Yes, an expert in manhole covers. There are all sorts of people out there with specialized knowledge.

It reminds me of an Anne Lamott essay in Bird by Bird where she recounts becoming obsessed with figuring out the word for the wire thingy on top of a champagne bottle. It’s called a wire hood, by the way, but gaining that knowledge led her down a path that eventually had her on the phone with a monk who worked in a vineyard. Her point in the essay was that researching by reaching out to speak to experts makes writing more communal (which Wikipedia cannot do — although  admittedly, she was penning the essay before the rise of Wikipedia).

“Sometimes I think I know the answer and I just want to confirm it,” Jeanne Cavelos says in her podcast interview. “And many times they [the experts] volunteer details that are incredible that I want to incorporate in someway into the book. That’s one way primary sources and experts can really help you, providing these details that you can’t imagine and you can’t find in a book. As writers, we tend to believe we have pretty good imaginations, but really the truth is often way stranger and more interesting than we can imagine.”

I once heard from a paramedic who said he’d been prepared to see weird stuff when he’d worked in New York City, but hadn’t truly seen weird shit until he started working the same job in Cleveland. And no, I couldn’t imagine the details. Not without asking someone who’d actually been there.

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