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Sep
16
2013

Writing what you know is not always what you think -- by Marcia Kuma

Who hasn’t heard that old adage, “write what you know?” That’s how to get realism in your story, and if your story doesn’t feel real, nobody’s going to want to read it, goes the thought. Oh poor writers, sitting there with that sinking feeling, because you’re an accountant or a phys ed teacher and you want to write hard science fiction or steampunk, but the adage says you can’t. Well ace, I’m here to lift that burden from your weary shoulders. Do you think Isaac Asimov journeyed in space ships, getting into trouble on alien worlds? He didn’t, but he did have an incredible imagination, which you do too. You have something else—the capacity to research.

Some of the subjects I needed to know about in order to write my novel, and write it convincingly:

  • What being a roadie for a rock band really entails
  • What recording songs entailed, back in the 1980s
  • Where Latino gangs in Los Angeles lived before the riots of 1992 South Central (also known as the Rodney King riots)
  • What cocaine addiction and withdrawal are really like
  • What some of the music terms are used by rock musicians, drummers in particular, and what they mean
  • How to swear in (Mexican) Spanish, the gut-reaction stuff often termed “vulgar”

Of that list, subjects I knew something about when I first started writing the novel -- zero.

I don’t know any bands, I know exactly one person who used to be in a band, I am so painfully shy that I couldn’t even introduce myself to the local writers group I wanted to join. Did I sigh mournfully and give up? Well, I did for a few years, but then a miracle happened -- the internet was born.

Online, I found a DVD documentary about a tour by the rock band Rush, told from the POV of some of their roadies (road technicians, thank you). I found roadie-related websites. I found Luis Rodriguez’ amazing non-fiction book Always Running, which, while set several years earlier than my story, takes place in the same city and gives important insights on how street gangs formed and how they progressed. I hadn’t had the foggiest idea that any of this stuff existed. Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” documentary was released, showing a lot of background stuff that the public never sees but that I needed to know.

Just walking through my local public library, glancing at the new books, I found Wild Boy by Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor. Perfect for the atmosphere surrounding 80s rock. Watching Celebrity Apprentice when Sharon Osborne was on, I found out that (according to Sharon) the homes of the super-rich don’t include dressers in the bedrooms, they keep their stuff in closets. That helps me with the home setting of my super-rich rock band.

These finds continue today. So by now, what I love is turning into what I know and therefore I can write my story with some authority. A few people have asked me, after reading bits of my story, if I play in a band. That, friends, is perhaps the highest compliment.

Don’t let research scare you. Always keep your eyes and ears open; you never know when fascinating, useful information will find you. Find what makes your blood race and your heart pound, what makes you forget to eat and drink and sleep, and research it. It won’t even be work but you’ll absorb huge amounts of stuff that will come out in all sorts of subtle ways in your writing. This applies to everything from stories about art thieves to hard science fiction to fantasy. There are always things to research no matter what genre you write.

That in turn will help you create a living, breathing world that readers will think you grew up in. If you can do that with a story about accountants or phys ed teachers, come back here and put up a blog post about it!

Posted by Marcia Kuma 16 Sep 2013 at 01:37
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Responses to this blog

Fairchild 16 Sep 2013 at 19:42  

Don?t let research scare you. Always keep your eyes and ears open; you never know when fascinating, useful information will find you. Find what makes your blood race and your heart pound, what makes you forget to eat and drink and sleep, and research it


This! Excellent article and a nice shot of Encouragement.
Crease 17 Sep 2013 at 09:23  
Ditto. It shouldn't be write what you know. It should be write what you're passionate about. Then you'll learn it...and can write it. So, well said.

Robert Duncan: If I write what you know, I bore you; if I write what I know, I bore myself, therefore I write what I don't know.

John Irving: The ?write-what-you-know dictum has no place in imaginative literature?.
Aries75 17 Sep 2013 at 16:52  
Quote by: Crease
Ditto. It shouldn't be write what you know. It should be write what you're passionate about. Then you'll learn it...and can write it.

Award-winning author Tracy Chevalier (best-known for Girl With A Pearl Earring) said practically the same thing:


Chevalier champions the value of research: 'Don't write what you know; write what you're interested in, or else it turns into autobiography. You're not as interesting as you think. When you get away from yourself, you become more aware of things.' She goes back to her research to avoid coming to ?dead ends? when writing. ?The research makes the reader trust you.?

And in this, the Internet age (where information is literally a mouse-click away), research has never been easier.


Crease 17 Sep 2013 at 21:19  

You're not as interesting as you think.

Yup. I figure the stuff I know is boooring.
Purplek 19 Sep 2013 at 12:34  
Great post!

And in this, the Internet age (where information is literally a mouse-click away), research has never been easier. What would we do without the Internet. I recently read an article which detailed the level of research (letter writing to zoologists!) Roald Dahl put in to find out about the heart beat of a mouse!
Owllady 20 Sep 2013 at 17:06  
I Googled "getting kicked in the #!@%" and there were a bunch of hits, some very specific! You really can find almost anything online


Celebc¨en 22 Sep 2013 at 03:42  
Fantastic article!


Of that list, subjects I knew something about when I first started writing the novel — zero.

It was exactly the same for me when I started reseraching Chicago Black Belt life in the 1920s three years ago. I remember when I started reading the first book about everyday life in the Twenties, I felt like a stupid. I thought, "What do I think I'm doing? I can't possibly write this, I don't know anything.'
Three years later, I still think I have a lot to learn, but I did write the entore trilogy twice and I can't belive how much the second draft is different fromt he frist because of the things I learned.


And in this, the Internet age (where information is literally a mouse-click away), research has never been easier.

I will always thank the internat and Amazon, because I would have never been able to reserch Roaring Twenties US otherwise. I live in Italy. There is nothing about this subject to be found here. Serious. I got all my research material from the internet.
Aries75 22 Sep 2013 at 10:51  

You really can find almost anything online

Indeed Though sometimes that can be curse as well as blessing - having to sift through all that information and determine fact from fiction (especially true when one has to research controversial subjects). I also think it raises reader expectations quite a bit, making them far more likely to call a writer out for any inaccuracies (an ongoing theme in 1-star Amazon reviews - and really, when it's so simple to confirm certain facts, there's no excuse for sloppy research and getting things wrong)

But in the grand scheme of things, I'd much rather have too much information than too little.
Owllady 22 Sep 2013 at 11:10  
It's absolutely a curse-blessing relationship. When I started researching street gangs, with some specific parameters, I found next to nothing. My novel takes place in Los Angeles and I live in New York State; I'm not able to, for example, stroll down to the public L.A. library and find local articles. There is info that just is NOT online.

Now, that said, stuff gets added all the time. For four years I've been trying to find out where the Hispanic residents in the Watts neighborhood of L.A. lived in the '80s - I knew the whole section wasn't Hispanic but couldn't find the info or a contact who knew. Two or three weeks ago, just for the fun of it, I Googled it again and found new info! It was an L.A. Times article from several years ago that either had not shown up in my earlier searches (Google is not, in fact, God) or it got added recently.

Persistence pays. Keep looking for info you need. Keep sending out that manuscript. Some successful authors have said their manuscripts got rejected dozens of times before finally being accepted and going on to sell tons of copies.

Aries75 22 Sep 2013 at 11:19  

Now, that said, stuff gets added all the time. For four years I've been trying to find out where the Hispanic residents in the Watts neighborhood of L.A. lived in the '80s - I knew the whole section wasn't Hispanic but couldn't find the info or a contact who knew.

This is where forums and social media (a fairly recent phenomenon; Facebook/Twitter may seem ubiquitous now, but they've really only taken off within the past five years) can come to the rescue Want to confirm a local detail? Post in a widely used forum, or a relevant Facebook page, and a local resident is bound to speak up (I would also strongly recommend the NaNoWriMo reference forums - I think they get more traffic than any other, particularly during Oct-Nov - over 100k people online at certain points. I got answers there I would never have found anywhere else)
Owllady 22 Sep 2013 at 18:46  
Hey, those are more great ideas! Thanks for adding that.

.....I'm older than dirt and don't automatically think of FB and Twitter
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my blog: Letter Go
My heart is like an open highway / Like Frankie said "I did it my way"
I just wanna live while I'm alive
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