Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Write What You Know versus Research

I remember the first piece of writing advice I ever received: write what you know. I was seven years old and just developing an interest in creative writing and at the time it made sense.

It’s a reasonable idea. Write stories about things you are familiar with and turn them into something more than what they are. Take experiences from your own life and make them fictional.

Okay, but what if you want to go beyond your world as it is? For example, in planning for NaNoWriMo this year, I began by writing a short story loosely based on something that happened to me during college. After writing the story, I realized that the characters in hand were not fitting properly in the short story form. They didn’t have enough room to grow and I decided to attempt to tell the story as a novel.

About the same time, I read this passage in Robin Hemley’s excellent book, Turning Life Into Fiction: “You should ask yourself if the time frame is important. Is this a story that could only have happened in Depression-era Mississippi, or is it timeless? Is it a story that could take place now? If your answer is yes to the second question, you don’t need to set it in the past. Setting the story in the present might ultimately free you in your handling of the material, might make the story less biography and more fiction.”

As I thought about it, I realized that my story was more or less timeless, and in fact might even be more interesting if set in the past. I decided to set my novel in 1963, but this led me to another problem – I didn’t live through the 1960s. My parents weren’t even married until 1968.

What did I know about 1963?

I knew one important fact: President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 and this would play a crucial role in one of my main characters’ story lines. Beyond that, I was clueless.

So, I turned to the internet to find out what movies and music were popular that year. 

I turned to the library to find out as much information as I could about Kennedy. 

I turned to my parents for stories of their youth.  

I brought my short story to my workshop and learned important information about the clergy (which plays an important role in the story as well) from one of my fellow writers. 

In short, I’m learning as much as I can about my subject so that I can write intelligently about it.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sticking to the write what you know philosophy. There’s also nothing wrong with expanding your knowledge base when your writing demands it.

How much research do you do as you write?

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