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Author Topic: Writing What You Know
Victoria
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Okay, I have a question for you all. It looks like many of your are published writers and it's your brains that I need to pick. I always hear that it's best to write what you know. What I 'know' is pretty limited. I haven't had too many life altering experiences or 'wow' moments. I know what I'm interested in, but I'm not sure how to form a story around it. But I'm sure with time and thought I can do this.

But I do have an idea for a novel that would breach areas that I am completely unfamiliar with. I know that it would mean lots and lots of outside research. The story has war as a central theme but I don't know much about conflict and war, or even morality on the national/ international level. Is it worth spending the time reading the books and articles on these subjects (which would take a long time) or should I just forget pursuing this storyline?

Any and all ideas would be appreciated. Thanks!
Victoria


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TaShaJaRo
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I think your question is best answered by you. Is it worth it to YOU to spend time researching?

It is usually always more fun to just write than to research. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to write any story without doing some amount of research. If you're not that into your story and the type of researching you have to do is not of interest to you then it can be very tedious indeed.

But if your story is burning to get onto paper and it requires research, then you do yourself a disservice not to invest the time and effort. You can put off doing the research during the rough draft phase. That will allow you to get the story down. During the rough draft, when you get to a scene that requires the research, you can summarize it and then move on, fleshing it out in full during the rewrite.

Ultimately, it is entirely up to you whether you abandon the story or not. No one can make that decision for you.


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wbriggs
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Do it!

I think "write what you know" is bad advice with a grain of truth. If we took it as it is, there'd be no SF or fantasy, since not a one of us has traveled faster than light, met elves, etc.

The grain of truth is: know what you write. Investigate! And have fun doing it! You can learn about war. You can learn how it feels, what concrete detail you'd find, etc. -- at least, enough to fool the reader.

In my novel, I needed to know pre-Columbian Indian life; alternative fuels; city government; police work; particle physics; even more. So I went to museums and powwows, made way too much use of interlibrary loan; went to a hydro plant; sat in on a couple of city council meetings; went to wildnerness schools. It took me as long to research the novel as to write it -- but it was fun! (After all, if I didn't enjoy these things enough to research them, I wouldn't want to write about them anyway!)

And when it was all over with . . . just a few details, often, from a whole weekend of research, or a whole book, went into my book. After all, it's the story, not the "how do I make an arrowhead" or "how to take a building in urban warfare" that's the draw. But those few details I put in, I think, made the story convincing.

[Caveat: the book isn't published, and all my (short) pubs so far didn't involve research. But I still think it works!]

Oh, another thought: I did my best to do all my research first. Because I wanted the knowledge bubbling in my head when I created a scene, not tacked on later like footnotes.

[This message has been edited by wbriggs (edited April 24, 2005).]

[This message has been edited by wbriggs (edited April 24, 2005).]


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goatboy
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"Knowing" and "Experiencing" are two different things. You don't have to go to the moon to write a book about it. The problem comes in when you try to convince someone who HAS been to the moon that your story is worth reading. If you haven't been there, then you need to do enough research to convince someone that you have.


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Jeraliey
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The fun thing about research is it can develop your stories to ridiculous orders of magnitude. You just get so many ideas when you're looking at every aspect of a given topic, and it just sweeps you away! Sometimes you'll end up taking your story in an entirely new direction, one that you never would have found if you hadn't done all that crazy library-diving.
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Lord Darkstorm
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I would never try and convince you not to do the research you need, but how much do you need? I've read books that have a surrounding war, but the war has little to do with the book. It is a setting that becomes a backdrop for the story. If your story was going to be about two people trying to live and survive in the middle of a war, then you don't have to know all the military jargon, or how battles are planned. From the perspective of one of those people, there would be fighting that they were only hiding from instead of participating in.

So you have to ask yourself what your main character(s) need to know. What part will they play in the story? If you are going to write from the perspective of a soldier, then you want to go find a few people that have been in the military. Go for type that you are going to write about. Don't talk to an officer when your character is a ground pounder. I've yet to know to many active or ex military people that won't bore you to death about how horrid the military is/was. Instead of just reading a journalists perspective, get a real perspective. Get several, and take notes if you need to.

I was in the military, but not even close to the infantry. What I learned about the infantry was from people who were part of it. There is a world of difference between a dramatized hero, and someone trying to stay alive. Depending on what you want to write, focus you research to give you more information that fits.


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MaryRobinette
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I find that I do research as I'm writing and that it's fairly targeted. There are times when I've had to go back and rewrite things based on the research, but it's always better.

The advantage to researching as you write is that you don't have to research the entire field, you just have to hit the areas that relate to the story. For instance, I have a story set in China. In one scene, and one scene only, the layout of a typical T'ang dynasty pavillion was important. Rather than researching China, which is huge, I targeted T'ang dynasty architecture, specifically of pavillions.

They eat a meal in the story--breakfast with a farmer--so I didn't research all of Chinese food, I just hit the region my farmer lived in and the sorts of food a typical one might eat for breakfast.

Taking it a piece at a time is much easier. Of course, at the same time I'm reading about breakfast foods, or architecture, I'm also picking up other things which I weave into the story.

On the other hand, I was dealing with the Monkey King, a known folk hero, so I read the entire 5 volume Monkey King epic, Journey to the East.

The rest of the story? I know how a teenage girl reacts when she's scared. I know what it feels like to run up a flight of stairs, or to be cold or any of the other things that are part of the common experience. Those are the bits of "write what you know" that you should pay attention to. Even if the part you know is only something you've imagined, you've experienced it in your head.


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Survivor
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There is an important distinction to be made here. The core of writing is capturing the interior experience, not the exterior details. It is certainly true that getting basic factual information wrong will dump knowledgeable readers out of your story, but it is the quality of the interior experience that is the real strength of literature.

You can research the facts from a book, since you only intend to show them in the same manner (it does help to have some practical experience, not all "facts" in books are equally factual). But the passions and motivations of your characters are what you must truly know out of yourself.

In a practical sense, you already know everything about war and international "morality" you need to know for the purposes of living your life as a literate citizen of a world currently embroiled in numerous wars. You already have opinions about war, even if it is just the opinion that modern wars aren't important enough to engage your attention. I would certainly suggest that you learn about war, but whether or not you do, you should write honestly out of yourself.

You know what it's like to be you. Put yourself into your stories, and don't try to write stories that aren't primarily about yourself.


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RavenStarr
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Victoria:
I say, you should start with "write what you know" and grow from there (basically, never stop learning anything)...

For a story of international war... well... that depends on the depth that you would like to take on it. If you've never had any military experience before in your life... you should go the way that OSC does in the Shadow series... basically... he writes everything completely from a commander's point of view, and never from an actual soldier's point... because there’s about a billion books that can help you understand international warfare from a commander's view, but I can't think of one that can really help you with a soldier's (experience is about the only real way to actually understand what a soldier really goes through). Pick up a copy of Sun Tsu's "Art of War", and you'll be pretty much covered (that doesn’t mean it’s the affinity of all war information, it’s just a really good place to start). You could even consider checking out a surplus or somewhere like that and see if you can locate a SMART Book (soldier's manual), that can give some decent information...


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