Writer’s Life: Know What You Write (or Know How to Fake It)

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Jun 28, 2010 in Writer's Life |

Photo by Steve Weaver Creative Commons

I absolutely hate the advice “write what you know.” Hate. Hate. HATE. It might make some kind of sense for first time novelists who’d rather not get bogged down in the tedium of researching on top of the monumental task of completing a large written work, but after that it becomes an excuse not to grow as a writer and a person. Some writers shy away from writing characters or different gender, race, nationality, or sexual orientation because they feel like they’ll mess it up. Well, guess what — you will mess it up, and that’s okay as long as you’re learning in the process. Next time you’ll do better. It’s like learning to ride a bike. You’ll fall down a few times, maybe scrape your elbows once or twice, but that’s just part of the thrill doing something a little scary.

My current work in progress is set in Cuba, Japan, and India — three places I’ve never been and know next to nothing about. My goal is to have enough knowledge to write a passably accurate and culturally entertaining novel without getting lost in loads of research. I’m only a few chapters into the novel, but here are a few quick and dirty tips I use:

  1. Learn to laugh at your mistakes. If you go into this expecting to feel like a complete idiot on at least a few occasions, then you’ve already passed the biggest hurdle to knowing what you write. You don’t have to get it perfect the first time, the second time, or even the third. You may write some clichéd characters, fall into some stereotype traps, but the more you practice, the better you get. Try writing a few short stories to get those mistakes out of your system, and before you know it, you’ll be able walk a mile in anyone’s shoes.
  2. Wikipedia is your friend. Yes, it might be the friend you wouldn’t trust enough to leave your wallet lying on the coffee table when you step out of the room, but if you’re wrist deep in banging out a first draft, then it’ll do an adequate job of giving you an overview of your topic and point you to some places where you might find more reliable information. If you’ve got something at the heart of your story that hinges on accuracy, then by all means, do some real research, but Wikipedia should be enough to get you through a first draft about 80% of the time. Be careful not to overload your manuscript with minutiae. A few well-placed details will work wonders without leaving you open tons of mistakes.
  3. Take a vacation on someone else’s dime. Wouldn’t we all love to be able to take off and journey to a foreign country, spend a few weeks or months marveling at monuments, gawking at people, and indulging at cultural festivities? If that’s not the reality you live in, don’t fret, because you too can jet-set without the hassle of  passports, plug converters, traveler’s tummy. I use Flickr.com to hitch a ride on people’s vacation photos. I just type in the city that I’m interested in into the search box, then click slideshow, and I get an assortment of pictures from grand architecture to everyday drudgery, and they’re great for finding those little telltale details that really pull a reader into the story.

That should get your feet wet enough to brave your way through a first draft. Find a few trusted beta readers, preferably someone with knowledge of the areas you’re working with to catch glaring errors. While I’m letting my first draft marinate, I like to do real research, reading up on cultures in fiction and non-fiction alike. I particularly like the memoir format because the information tends to be more factual, but gives you an entertaining personal account as well.  By the time your beta feedback is returned, you should have absorbed enough information to give your story a final spit and polish that will convincingly immerse your readers into your world.


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