Writing what you don’t know.
Not exactly the writer’s adage, is it? I mean, isn’t it drummed into every writer’s head that you should write about subjects or skills in which you are knowledgeable or competent?
That adage is fine if you want to write about subjects that make up your current world, but what if you want to write about something in which you have no knowledge or experience? You’ve got this terrific plot and it can take place only in New Zealand and you live in the Bronx. That is a sticky wicket and works only if you know the
place…sorry! Too many details that might expose your story as ‘Unresearched’ lurk in those beautiful descriptive paragraphs of yours.
Like Hermann, Missouri. A small town cozying up to the banks of the Missouri River, Hermann is an hour and a half drive from St. Louis and three hours from Kansas City. It is an old town, lying in a hollow and in the heart of the wine growing country. As an old town, most of Hermann’s residents still heat their homes with wood-burning stoves. Consequently, in the winter a thick layer of gray smoke floats over the town. People descending into Hermann via the higher elevated roads can see this smoky blanket wallowing at the base of the hills that surround the town. It is a very prominent, well-known aspect of Hermann. Therefore, anyone writing about Hermann would probably not state “Samantha stepped outside and took a deep breath of the clean, crisp air as she gazed upward at the stars shining brightly in the clear December sky.” Nope. A finger-pointer right there at your lack of research. Who’s going to believe the other stuff you write about Hermann and Samantha?
Or maybe you’d like one of your characters to be a radio announcer or a bartender, but you’ve never had your own radio show (let alone visited a radio station) or tended bar! Or you’re writing a mystery and you need some medical info on what a corpse looks like if it was buried in a snow bank for three days and you’re not a doctor or a snow-encased corpse. But you need the facts for your story!
So how do you solve that problem?
That’s when you have to write about what you don’t know.
I write two English mystery series and there are more things that I don’t know that keep cropping up than I could ever have imagined. The Taylor & Graham series features police detectives from the Derbyshire Constabulary. My McLaren Case mysteries underscore Michael McLaren, an ex-cop who now investigates cold cases on his own. I live in St Louis, so how do I get the information and detail for these English novels?
I was lucky because I had lived in England for a year; I’ve been back for vacation or research nearly a dozen times. Okay. I’ve got the problem of location licked. But what about those pesky items like English police procedure and medical situations? Depending on the sub genre, mysteries could be laced with that type of detail.
In this instance, I took a citizen police academy course. Not only did I get a lot of great information over the eight week course, but I formed a friendship and later a writing partnership with the police officer I accompanied on several ride-alongs.
On a trip to England I also dropped into the sectional headquarters of the Derbyshire Constabulary and talked to an inspector, got a tour of the facility and got my questions answered. I emailed him for a year following my visit and visited him again when I returned. Through him I met a police detective with whom I also formed a friendship and who gave me the information I needed for my novels. Our friendship is in its twelfth year.
Okay. Police problems solved. What about medical? That was just a matter of asking all my friends and acquaintances if they knew any doctor or medical person who would help mehopefully, on-going. It didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took me a little over a year. A woman I worked with said her sister might like to help me. And who is her sister? Just a pathologist and coroner! She’s been giving me the low down on such topics as knife wounds and decapitated bodies and blood spatter since 2004.
It pays to ask! It also pays to travel. Sure, it takes commitment of time, energy and money on your part, but you’ll be surprised how many people want to help. Nothing is more flattering than having someone ask them about their job.
Even if you can afford nothing more than phone calls or talking to local people, that still reaps results. Universities have professors with knowledge on a vast array of subjects; the medical examiner’s office is usually a good source of info; local police departments (unless they are too small) have public relations officers who will answer your questions. Get on the phone and talk to them!
Attend conferences on your subject another splendid way to talk to experts. At a mystery writers conference I became friends with a woman who owns a death scene cleaning company. You guessed it: she’s been answering my questions for my last two books.
Of course it’s easier all around if you just sit home and type in a question into Google’s search bar. But… You think you can just slide by doing it that way, that no one will ever know? Remember Hermann? That’s a locale mistake.
You can get into deeper trouble not researching occupations or how to do things. An example.
My father and I were watching the 1947 James Cagney movie 13 Rue Madeleine. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, it’s about Allied secret intelligence agents in France in World War II. A French telegrapher was hiding in a bombed-out house in the French countryside, transmitting a message to London. Partway through her transmission, Nazis discovered her location, shot and killed her.
Back to the scene in London where a telegraph operator received the agent’s partial message. The operator hands the message to the head of the Allied Operations. The Operations chief asks what is the rest of the agent’s message. The operator says, “The signal stopped.”
That one sentence ruined the entire movie for my father, who was in the Army Signal Corps in WWII and also was an amateur radio operator. He said, quite disgustedly, “Her signal didn’t stop. Her transmission stopped. The line’s still open.”
Readers or viewers are willing to suspend their disbelief when they immerse themselves into your story. They want to live the experience along with the characters. But they will be jarred out of your world and the story ruined for them if you fail to research adequately.
The celebrated mystery author P.D. James told about writing a scene in one of her novels. She described how the character struggled to climb a cliff. Her last sentence in the paragraph stated something like he pulled himself exhausted and panting onto the grass atop the cliff. She gave that part of her manuscript to her nephew, who was an amateur rock climber. He read it and said that no wonder the guy fell panting on top of the cliff; she had made what normally would have been an hour climb in fifteen minutes!
To those of us who don’t climb rocks, the mistake will slide by. We’ll never know that’s wrong. But to people such as her nephew, that mistake is glaring and shows her ignorance. It destroys what might be an exciting scene.
Like the telegraph transmission scene and my father.
Or Samantha in Hermann.
The mood is broken and the reader no longer trusts the author. She’ll be reading the rest of the book (if she’s not too disgusted), hunting for more goofs, not involved in the character or the story.
Sure, there will always be mistakes in books, but you can eliminate a good portion of them by visiting the locale or asking an expert. After all, isn’t one of the greatest compliments a writer can get ‘I felt like I was there.’?
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