Researching Your Stories: Write What You Know, Even When You Haven’t Experienced It

“I disagree with the advice ‘Write about what you know.’ Write about what you need to know, in an effort to understand.” – Donald Windham

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably been advised once or twice by a well-meaning writing teacher or Beta Reader, to write about what you know. Usually they mean to write about things you’ve experienced. While it is good to write what you know, you don’t have to experience it to know it.

When I was attending the University of Nebraska I knew a science fiction writer named Cindy who’d had two stories published in Analog. One of those stories had been critiqued by a writing Professor from whom I was currently taking a class. The Professor had admonished her to “write what she knows,” and apparently he was skeptical that an alternate reality was something that Cindy understood. That story went on to become her first published fiction.

Although some writers have  written excellent fiction that has grown out of their experiences, for most of us there is research. The research can range from a little to extensive.

While in college, I wrote a story for a writing workshop about a custodian cleaning the morgue during the graveyard shift. He has a habit of drinking on the job and is a little tipsy, so he believes that one of the bodies dropped off for an early morning autopsy is really alive but is in a coma. I had never been in a morgue so I called Lincoln General Hospital and asked if I could come over and take a look. A nice fellow showed me around the morgue (the first thing I learned is they didn’t like to call it the morgue; on the door was a sign that said “Clinical Evaluation”), and I went home and wrote the story.

It turned out that one of my classmates actually had been a custodian on the graveyard shift at Lincoln General. He thought I’d worked there at one time myself. When I told him I’d just done research, he said I’d nailed it. He asked if they still had that barrel of brains … I said no, just the jars containing bits of organs in the closet.

“Clinical Evaluation” became my first published story, appearing in Pig Iron Press’s 1983 anthology The New Surrealists.

Arthur Hailey was an example of a writer whose backgrounds were almost entirely researched. The author of such bestselling novels as Airport, Hotel, and The Moneychangers, Hailey would choose an industry, spend months researching it in-depth, and then set a story in that industry.

Although Hailey was a pilot, he didn’t have much personal experience (and most of the time he had no personal experience) of the things about which he wrote. But no one could ever accuse Arthur Hailey of writing about things he did not know.

Whatever you write about you can fill in the parts you don’t know with research. Sometimes what you haven’t experienced can be a major part of the story.

When you research, use “live” rather than “dead” sources as much as you can, or as much as you need to. A dead source is anything you find in a book, magazine article, a document, online, or any other place it is written down or recorded. A live source is when you get your information by talking to people who have had the experience you’re writing about. In the examples above, Cindy used dead sources–and her imagination–to get her science fiction story right; Arthur Hailey and I used live sources for our research.

Use “live” sources whenever you can because they’ll be able to tell you things you usually won’t find in books. You’ll be able to ask them questions that will help give your story the touch of verisimilitude that it needs. For instance, you’ll be able to ask a person who grew up in New York City what it feels like to window shop on  Sunday morning, what the traffic’s like at that time, and how many pedestrians are out.

You probably would search long and hard for that information in a book, and you may not be able to find precisely what you want by surfing the Web.

The Internet, however, is a good tool to use for contacting “live” sources around the world and getting almost instantaneous answers. For example, the Australian writer Steph Bowe–whose first novel, Girl Saves Boy, will be published in Australia this September and the summer of 2011 in the U.S.–recently posed several questions to her American followers on Twitter about how an American character would react in certain situations.

Make sure that your research is thorough. Dean Koontz is another example of a writer who does extensive research. He cautions writers to be sure to get the tiniest details right–for one of his novels he had to find out the color of taxicabs in a certain Japanese city.

Don’t assume that you know something; find out. I thought the slang “blow away” was descriptive of what happens when someone gets shot; the force of the bullet knocks the victim over. Then I researched it for a novel I was writing. As it turns out you’d have to use a pretty big gun for that to happen. I mean a seriously big gun. If you shot someone with a .357 Magnum or a shotgun, for instance, he would just drop like a sack of potatoes, not go flying off his feet like he did in one movie that shall remain nameless.

That’s the sort of thing that somebody, somewhere will know, and it’s annoying to be at a book signing and–to paraphrase Ray Bradbury–have one of your readers say, “Dude, on page 227 where Joe gets shot and it flings him over the back of the couch …” and you say, “Yeah,” and he says, “Nah.”

So write what you know, but you don’t have to personally experience it to know it. You know what I mean?

Categories: Writing Fiction

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