If you’ve been writing for any amount of time, you have undoubtedly heard the phrase, ‘write what you know’. Creative writing teachers and websites like Writer’s Digest recite this with all the fervor of religious dogma. But is it realistic? According to the literary establishment, the woman working the counter at Starbucks, has no business penning a World War 2 epic. The hard working slob driving a garbage truck for a living is stuck writing about garbage collectors.
Write what you know, is both good and bad advice. Most people will never travel in space, wield magic powers, or pull off a perfectly planned bank heist. That’s where research comes in. Research is a writer’s best friend. It allows us to write convincingly about places we’ve never been and people we’ve never met.
Which brings us to the topic at hand; when should you research and how much?
Every time you open a book or turn on the History Channel, you are doing research. And that brings me to my first point; Good research is mostly organic and happens separate from the writing process. This is where I part ways with the prevailing opinion. Most writers choose to write a story and then sit down to research. I believe you should know about the subject before hand.
The serious writer should be a student of history. In order to be a good story teller, you need a broad knowledge of the world. I would go so far as to say, if you don’t like history, (or at the very least current events) you’ve got no business trying to write.
This is a big sticking point for most new authors.
If you’re only interested in Manga and the Walking Dead, that’s going to come through loud and clear in your writing. This is especially true of writers that have never read anything but YA books. If that’s you, put the children’s book down and take a stroll through the grown up section. There’s a lot of great literature out there.
Many inexperienced authors think they don’t need to know about history, politics or basic psychology. Usually these people can be found penning fantasy epics or YA vampire/werebear/BDSM/unicorn fanfic. They think because they are writing fantasy fiction, they can just make it up as they go.
Good fiction is steeped in reality and a lack of historical knowledge results in a flat fictional landscape. For instance, if you want to write convincingly in a medieval-esque world, a firm grasp of medieval Europe with help you add verisimilitude to your story.
When people say write what you know, what they are really saying is; know what you are writing about. Take an interest in history, the arts, literature, music. Expand your understanding of the world and the list of subjects you are qualified to write about expands along with it.
About five years ago, I was reading a magazine, (I don’t even remember which one) when I came across an article on the Chickasaw Lighthorse Police. It is a police department of a dozen or so officers in charge of the entire Indian Reservation in Ada, Oklahoma. I remember at the time thinking that they were a lot like frontier Marshals in a Wild West boom town. It inspired me to investigate modern Indian reservations, their political structures and economics.
Fast forward, five years later I get inspired to write a story about a disabled Sherriff on a reservation investigating a murder. I was already familiar with the historical and cultural climate. The information was already in my head. I didn’t have to do four months of research before I started the story. I sat down, worked up an outline in three days and wrote the first draft in two months.
Having already studied, you won’t waste months researching for the story. You can dive right in. (After you have an outline)
Second, you won’t waste time collecting irrelevant facts that don’t have any bearing on the story you are telling. If you don’t know anything about the subject, you won’t know what’s important and what’s not. You’ll have to research at random and hope you collect the facts you need. You’ll end up with a lot of useless material.
Now let’s talk about post first draft research.
You won’t get everything right the first time. But once you have a first draft in hand, it is easy to read through your story, and compile a list details you need to fact check. Then just go down your list and collect the info you need to keep your story historically accurate. This will be a list of minutiae easily spot checked with a web browser. It will also keep you from getting lost in the weeds.
Compare that method to researching at random, hoping you find the relevant information and spending countless hours surfing the web only to find out later that you’ve got more work to do.
Start with a solid grasp of the place and time period your story is based in before you write. Your first draft is going to be much farther along than if you wing it and then research the small details after.
So become a student of history and save yourself a lot of time and effort. Then do targeted research once your first draft is written.