Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Write What You Know. Not.

By Vicki Delany

Writers are often given the advice of “Write what you know.”
In a lot of cases I don’t think that’s good advice.

Say you’re a systems analyst at a major bank in a big city. You take the commuter train into the city every day from your home in a leafy suburb, you interact with computer programmers and businesspeople, you write technical documents and at the end of the day you get back on the train for a half-hour ride to the leafy suburb whereupon you drive home and cook dinner for your family. A bit of TV, helping kids with their homework, maybe read before bed.

Boring. Unless a writer can put a real twist on the above (example: The Zac Walker books by Linwood Barclay) it’s going to be as boring to read about as it is to live.

I know. That was my life for a good number of years.
So because I didn’t want to write a book about the life of an office worker and a commuter, I set about learning what I wanted to know so I could write about it.

I wanted to write the sort of books I love to read: mainly the British style police procedurals. I have no experience in law enforcement whatsoever, but it was important to me that my books have some veracity, at least within the bounds of fiction. I just hate it when I come across a book in which the author clearly hasn’t bothered to try to learn simple things they should know. We particularly find that in Canadian police stories, where everything the author knows about policing is from watching American TV and reading British books. 
Before beginning the Constable Molly Smith series, I made contacts in my local police departments. I found that most people are happy to talk about their jobs, few more so than police. I read a few true-crime books set in Canada so I’d get the hierarchy and the inter-force relationships right, even though true-crime isn’t normally something I read. I read newspaper articles with an eye to who did what, and scour web pages of police departments for technical info about ranks and divisions.
In short, I learned what I wanted to know.

When I wrote my new standalone novel, More Than Sorrow, I set it in a place I know very well – because I live there – but on a small-scale vegetable farm.  I know nothing about farming (you do not want to try to survive on the output of my garden) so I found a helpful cheerful farmer to tell me all about it.  I know nothing about traumatic brain injury (thank heavens) and found the internet an invaluable source of information.   The book has a historical backstory, about a people and a time I didn’t know much about, so I set about learning.
Same with my Klondike Gold Rush books. I wasn’t there, so I have to go to what sources I can find.  Fortunately, the Klondike Gold Rush was extensively photographed.  It was the last great gold rush, and the camera had just become small enough and easy enough to use that it could be taken out of the studio and away from stiff formal portraits to capture life on the street and people unaware.  In fact, in next year’s book, Gold Web, a photographer comes to town and young Angus MacGillivray decides that might be an interesting occupation.  Case in point: I went to the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY,  to meet with the curators to learn about old cameras and primitive photography. Fascinating stuff.

After all, it was bad enough being stuck on that commuter train and in that office in real life. Why would I want to spend time there in my imagination? You don’t think that J.K. Rowling created Harry Potter by writing what she knew, do you?
In Arizona or California?  I'll be touring libraries and stores in Phoenix, LA, and San Francisco over the next few weeks with Donis Casey, author of the historical Alafair Tucker series.  Our schedule is posted at my blog: http://vickidelany.blogspot.com/ It would be great to see you!


Meredith Cole said...

I know a lot of Harry Potter fans wish J.K. Rowling was writing what she knew! And they could go there, too...

I think write what you like to read, and "learn what you want to know" are both great pieces of advice for writers, Vicki.

Chris said...

Exactly this! I've always thought "Write what you know" was far too glib and reductive a rule -- one that encourages lazy, passive writing. "Know what you write" is far better, as rules go.

lil Gluckstern said...

Well, what you do seems to be working for me. I've caught up with Molly and hope for more. I really like More Than Sorrow, And am about to join the Gold Rush. I always thought of research as fun, work, yes, but fun.

Vicki Delany said...

Thanks, Lil! Research should be fun. If you don;t love what you're learning surely that will show in the book.