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Write What You Know?

One of the most cited axioms in writing is to “write what you know”.

Now of course, if all you know is amphibious bicycle repair and you’re trying hard to write an action-adventure book, then you’re going to need to spread your wings a bit. This isn’t to say your heroes can’t come to the rescue on an amphibious bicycle, but if you plan on writing chapter after chapter of them repairing and maintaining their awesome ride…well, suffice to say, it’s unlikely that fame and fortune will visit you.

I’m a little fortunate in that I tend to know a lot about many different things that are easy to incorporate into a novel. The United States Army, helicopters and airplanes and aviation in general, weapons, boating, high technology, a little bit of biology and medicine, East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East (also known as Southwest Asia, for those who like to be pedantic about things), littoral operations, special operations…hell, unlike bestselling author Vince Flynn, I even know that U.S. Navy SEALs aren’t called Special Forces, that’s the official designation of Army Green Berets. So that’s a goodly amount of knowledge to bring to the table, and since I’m not currently enamored of writing romance stories where this kind of stuff might seem out of place, I’ve got a lot of stories to tell.

But what if you have a hankering to write about things you don’t have direct experience with? What if you just have to write a detailed police procedural, and don’t know jack-diddly about the techniques and procedures a police department would array to solve a crime? Lazy (or extremely talented!) writers would just make stuff up, package it, and fire for effect. Those of us who want to bring more verity to our works beyond whispering “realism” once or twice during the writing process can actually do something else. And I do this all the time, since I’m a far cry from being a brainiac.

It’s called “research”.

Research can be annoying and dreary work, but it is something of a necessary evil. I was surprised to read in a Patricia Cornwall Scarpetta novel that one of her characters actually got most of the startup procedures for a Eurocopter A-Star down pretty pat. (One would think Cornwall would dispense with such details, but apparently she still believes in research.) While this didn’t mean very much in the context of the entire novel, it still conferred a fair amount of credibility to the work, and even non-aviators might have found it an interesting set of circumstances.

Research helps open doors for us as writers, and incorporating the fruits of that research into our works can give readers a glimpse into a life they might otherwise remain ignorant of. I’m not advocating using your fiction as a teaching tool, as too much emphasis on fact can make for some very dry reading, but it most assuredly does add another dimension to the reading experience. But if real-world data doesn’t easily fit into your fiction, or if it derails the story you want to tell, then be creative. I was one of a handful of people who was incensed when reading Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger, as it was rife with inaccuracies about U.S. special operations forces–U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) had just been established, and for sure that component would have been calling the operational shots, not the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. And why would a composite team be assembled to jump into Colombia? 7th Special Forces Group had a ton of guys with all the training necessary. And Air Force special operations providing tactical transport? Keep it streamlined and us the then-Task Force 160, an organic Army special operations aviation unit! These inaccuracies pulled me out of the story, and that’s not usually a good thing.

But full disclosure: I still finished the book. even after finding these transgressions borne from lazy research. And the book went on to become a successful movie. And even better, the 160th’s 3rd Battalion was featured inserting Benjamin Bratt’s troops–and I found it ironic the suits in Hollywood almost got it right where Clancy failed.

So research away, folks. Add some realistic grit to your endeavors. Don’t just describe how black the smoke is, add something to make the reader feel he or she can almost smell it and feel the blistering heat from the raging fire.

And oh yes…Happy Memorial Day. Take a second to hug a vet, because they made sacrifices so you don’t have to.

Categories: Writing Tags: ,
  1. May 30, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    The research is important, because if one little detail is off from someone who knows a bit about the subject in question, it distracts the reader. I’m reading “Windup Girl” at the moment, and it takes place in a futuristic Thailand. The book is great so far, but the author misuses the way you address someone senior to you in Thai, and it threw me off. I know it’s very geeky of me to get my panties in a bunch about something so trivial, but it still messed up the flow.

    So, yes, research is very important. It’s almost easier to write about kill bots 20,000 years in the future, where you can make everything up as you write.

  2. May 30, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Well, did the author at least have the men saying “krub” and not “na kha”?🙂

    • paulsalvette
      May 30, 2011 at 8:00 pm

      Stephen, พูดภาษาไทยเก่ง.

      The author gets most of the Thai right, but I don’t know why he tortured himself by putting so much of these details into the book. It’s like setting yourself up to make a mistake.

      • May 31, 2011 at 7:23 am

        Heh, that was pretty much the limit of my Thai!

        Yeah, TOO much detail can lead to a product’s downfall. And be just plain ponderous to read!

  3. May 30, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Good research doesn’t hurt, but most authors that spend a lot of time researching minute details tend to overemphasize the facts that they learned as if to say, “Look! I know what I’m talking about.” And a few sentences about weaponry turns into gun porn. Everything I know about police procedure and military protocol comes from movies and fiction. I wouldn’t know if they sent in the wrong battalion or if the cops really wouldn’t have done this or that. Those types of errors, while avoidable shouldn’t be enough to lower someone’s enjoyment of a book. The wrong or mis-named unit is still a unit. Technical facts I can excuse, but historical facts are another matter entirely.

    • May 31, 2011 at 7:21 am

      Well, there is too much of a good thing, but research that yields information which adds to the story is probably only a plus…in moderation, anyway.

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