Monday, January 31, 2011

One Joy of Writing is Learning

Welcome to another week full of topics that make J.D. think harder than normal: Do you write what you know or what you feel?

Well gosh, the only answer for that is YES.

One cannot write well about that which one does not know. One can try, but one would fail miserably.

But J.D., you said you do both! Um, yeah. That’s because I’m capable of doing research and learning about the subject I want to write about. For instance, my first novel begins in Chicago, a city I frequent every summer, and ends in Lapland, Finland, a place I have never been but would love to visit.

Writing about the setting in Chicago – something I know well – is a breeze for me, and is often the setting of choice for most my stories. Writing the setting in Finland, on the other hand, would have been impossible if not for the extensive research I did on the area, the geography, the climate, the customs, the language, etc. I researched until every detail was solid in my mind and the image held in my imagination became second nature. Only then could I write the setting as well as I do for Chicago. But I have to be careful. I have to remember that I have not actually been to Finland and what I imagine it to be like might not be the truth. So I often check and recheck my notes to make sure I’m not filling too many holes with randomness.

Another example: My MC from my newest WIP is a body guard – a field I know absolutely nothing about. I’ve researched it and still need to research it further because I’m not quite comfortable with it yet. Now I bet most of you shiver when I mention the R word (research!), but the thing is there are certain habits and traits we, as humans, pick up after years on the job.

For example, I’m a grooming assistant by day (author by night), my job is to hold the dog/cat still so the groomer can cut the animals hair evenly. Well, after doing this for 2 years, I’ve developed a habit of fearlessly touching dogs that don’t like to be petted. After all, I know how to contain them without being bitten. This is a trait I’ve picked up.

Characters need to have traits like this, traits they learned on the job, especially if you are writing about a body guard. I need the shifty eyes, the self-assured stance, the kick-butt moves, the savvy speaking-into-the-mini-microphone thing …. See what I mean? I obviously don’t know enough about this field yet. But that’s where research comes in.

So, yes, I write about what I feel AND what I know. And if I don’t know it, I learn it.


  1. I agree completely when it comes to research (I'm one of those weirdos that actually enjoy research). If you have a good story in mind, you shouldn't feel held back because you don't know enough about it. And these days the wonderful World Wide Web makes things so much easier. My current piece is set around old galleon ships - something I know nothing about.

    However, I feel there's a fine line between what you research and what you write. Many people have fallen into the trap of feeling so excited about their new-found knowledge that they want to include everything in their writing. This detail, unfortunately, can blind readers and threaten to swamp a perfectly good story. The trick is to just feed it into your writing bit by bit, so that it brings reality to your scene without blinding anyone...

    My thoughts which turned into an essay...sorry :D

  2. I must agree with DRC, J.D. (is that too many single letters in a row?)

    I often set my stories in places I know because I've lived there (Boston, Fort Worth, Atlanta, San Diego, Japan), but I also research because, with science fiction, so much is made up.

    However, I have been guilty of learning something new and throwing everything in to the fire, so to speak. For instance, I wrote a story set in Louisiana's bayou country and overdid with the Cajun speak. Reviewers just wanted to shoot my characters and totally missed the plot line.

    So, yes, we do tread a delicate line. But, tread it we must.

  3. My story is set in three different places. Two I know like the back of my hand, Philly and the Jersey Shore. The other, funny how it's Chicago, is a place my friend lived for a time and I long to visit there.

    I write what I know but I know how I feel. I feel my characters out and one lived in the Windy City for a time. I did my research, chatted with my friend. I may not personally know Chicago but in a way I do. I can feel that and can only pray I do the City Justice.

  4. Good post, JD. I don't think I've ever given a thought to the "habits and traits" picked up on a job that reveal who the character is or becomes. My characters are historical, in jobs as women ranchers, Buffalo Soldiers, artists, healers, bookkeepers, on and on. It may be time to take another look at them.

    It is,oh, so easy to wander down an exciting research trail only to get lost in the by-ways and overwrite. What to do? Excise and save for another day, another story. Problem is, it is so very hard to let go of the little darlings that I can blind myself to the excess.

  5. Great post, JD. I'm one of those that abhors research, probably because with my ADD mind, I get distracted with it. I once found a historical character through a song I heard, wound up buying about 10 books he'd written and even an original ms that is flaking leather gremlins on my bookshelf and should be in a museum. But they call to me, like my time travel. Now, I wouldn't exactly call that research. Maybe divination, but then, I do write paranormal.
    I actually look at blackboards and think they might write back to me. Now isn't that crazy?

  6. DRC and Greg - You're both absolutely right. I only actually use about 1/10th of what I've researched. Sometimes even less once the edits are done. Maybe I should have mentioned that in my post? But just because I only use a little doesn't mean I can slack off on my research. I still need it all, for my own benefit, so I don't get stuck and so I don't sound like an idiot. :D

    Charli - I'm sure you did a great job depicting Chicago. :)

    Arletta - Traits learned on the job aren't always necessary, but it is one way to add depth to a character.

    Sharon - I can easily spend hours looking up useless information on Google. To stay on track, I do a little planning. I make a list of all the things I need to look up. So if I'm writing an outdoor scene in China in the middle of march, I might jot down something like "Look up weather in China in March."

    If a story is in the "idea" stage still, this list can get very lengthy and general, but usually I have some idea of there I want my story to go and use that to guide my research. Writing down and organizing my thoughts helps me stay focused.

  7. Nice post.

    I am one of those folks who love research - but it has to be on hands research (I'm a methodical writer). Reading on the Internet is great - and sometimes the only way to get information for a story (like for historical research).

    However, I LUV jumping in to research I can sink my teeth, my fingers and any other body part into. I LUV to "live" my research - and that turns my 'feeling' aspect into first class 'knowledge'.

    This isn't for every writer. I know I've done some things 'in the name of research' that was down right stupid, if not unsafe and in some states, unlawful. But it brought me closer to my story - it brought me intimate knowledge that couldn't be gained from reading or interviewing.

    It brought 'soul'.