‘Write what you know’ was the mantra of my earliest Creative Writing professor, at York University, way back in 1988, and it still makes sense today. I mean, how can you write what you don’t know? How can you hope to be realistic and accurate if you have no idea what you’re talking about?
But what does ‘write what you know’ even mean? Does it restrict us to those subjects in which we have experience? Are we typecast by this dogma into only writing certain kinds of stories, or stories on certain subjects? If I’m a teacher, does that mean I can only write stories about teachers or teaching? Lord, I hope not – that wouldn’t give me much variety in my projects, would it? And besides, if you can only realistically write what you know, how do you explain the genius of Azimov, Tolkein and Rowling?
I think what my professor meant was two-fold: first, we should tap into our own experiences and feelings to infuse our writing with true emotional realism. And second, if we must write outside of our direct experience, then we need to make sure that we do our research.
Example? I’ve never been into outer space, but I can read about it in books, and if I can do that then I can write about it in my stories. Equally, I’m no judge or lawyer, but by researching the court system I can quite safely write books set in the legal environment.
But what does ‘research’ mean anyway? There are three kinds.
Primary research is interviewing someone who does have the critical life experience, and asking questions until we understand and appreciate the nitty-gritty of the thing. If I were somehow able to hook up with Chris Hadfield, for example – say I invited him over for supper or took him out for a coffee – I could pick his brain for all the details my protagonist would need to be a realistic, world-saving outer-space hero.
Secondary research involves the culling of data directly from marketing reports, company websites, magazine articles etc – all the relevant places for information on the subject at hand – and coming to conclusions from my own analyses. For my outer space saga – once I was finished picking Mr. Hadfield’s brain – I would head down to my local university library to paw my way through books, videos, essays, reports, research documents, theses, and so on, and I would draw on my readings to support theories based on what I’d read.
Tertiary research is the primary and secondary research of others that has already been analyzed and distilled. Think of encyclopedias, almanacs, text books and course notes. The information in these publications is invaluable, but it needs to be accepted carefully. Because someone else has already interpreted the data, a tertiary source could, in theory, be wrong. And if their interpretation is inaccurate, your use of it will render your project inaccurate too.
A healthy combination of all these kinds of research will serve your project best. Then, when all your facts are before you, you can begin the work of crystallizing your new-found knowledge into believable and engaging characters and circumstances.
So what’s the bottom line? Once you’ve learned something, it’s yours, and you can use it as you wish.
Next: Keeping It Real