Research, versus write what you know

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Old advice tells authors you should write what you know. How else can your writing be authentic and accurate unless you know the details? Well, writing what you don’t know can be better advice for fiction authors. While you’re learning about your subject, your research makes the writing come alive.

Nonfiction writers know the challenges of writing what you don’t know. As a reporter, and later as an editor, I received and then handed out assignments. The earliest days were as a general assignments reporter, the equivalent of a primary care physician. We learned to find answers, and read papers, and interview experts. Nonfiction authors start with one thing they do know, always: their passion for a subject.

Those research talents serve novelists, too. If you’re writing a novel that includes the cuisine of Montana diners, you can visit the state for flavors and scents. Or you can prowl books, magazines and websites, or browse things like Reddit groups for details. That researching is important so long as the details help your storytelling.

Nothing close to 100 percent of the details make it into your writing, of course. While creating the editor-ready draft of Sins of Liberty over these past years, I filled a mighty shelf of research books. Sins of Liberty is historical fiction, so our research as novelists is tempting us always. It can also become a tar pit. A national conference of historical novelists had a great icebreaker question: How do you stop researching?

Details might bind you

Even in non-historical fiction, you can get bound up with the details you know well. Bret Anthony Johnston is a short story writer whose books are set around Corpus Christi. Almost every word of his fiction takes place around Corpus, but he says that first-hand knowledge is just scaffolding, “torn down once the book is complete. I took small details from my life to evoke a place and the people who inhabit it. But those details served only to illuminate by imagination.”

When writing is a mystery to be uncovered, it gets captivating. Johnston, who bought a Writers’ League of Texas membership once from the WLT conference stage where he spoke, turns away from what he knows. “I sought out any and every point where a plot could be rerouted from what I’d known” that “conformed to the contours of my life.”

Creative narrative nonfiction—memoir—walks the line on writing what you know versus research. The sensations and sensory details are what a memoirist knows. What happened is the guardrail for the story. In the creating of the memoir, though, you can research what those events amounted to: finding the meaning through telling the story.

Andrea Barrett, a novelist and contributor to Writer’s Notebook II, says research is worthwhile in fiction when it illuminates. “Research is simply a way of understanding what our characters understand.” You cut away much of what you gather in research, but what’s left over is the vehicle to let us “feel ourselves into the state of our characters.” Tim O’Brien assayed his Vietnam experiences in nonfiction. But then “something is gained by setting imagination loose on history: empathy.”

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