May 20, 2011

Writing what you don't know

We’ve all heard the old saying ‘write what you know’, but sometimes as a writer you need to step outside your areas of expertise. I know quite a bit about some subjects (British pop music of the mid-1980s, for example), a little bit about quite a few subjects (well, enough to get by in Trivial Pursuit, long as I don't land on sport or geography), and not much about a whole lot of things. I think that's a pretty normal range of knowledge to have but, somehow, each of my novels has required research on a topic that is key to one or more subplots, about which I know very little (stage lighting for Finding Freia Lockhart, genetics, lactose intolerance and soccer, among other things, for Little Sister).

On Monday, I finally started writing Book3* and already, less than 10,000 words in, I've got a heap of research queries. That's not unusual but I noticed that my methodology has been significantly streamlined since I randomly typed "what is a fader" into Google all those years ago. So, in the interests of sharing, here's what I’ve learned about doing research for books:
  1. Start at your local library. It might seem strange to begin offline when Google can bring so much info about every conceivable topic to you without leaving the house, but narrowing your choices can be a good thing. If you Google ‘genetics’ you will be faced with a choice of ‘About 42,500,000’ results; at my library I had a choice of five books, including Genetics for Dummies and the book that was more useful than the 100+ genetics websites I eventually visited: 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know by Mark Henderson.
  2. When you have an idea of the specifics of a topic that you want to investigate further, hit Google (or whichever search engine you prefer) and be as precise as possible. Searching for ‘soccer fouls’ rather than ‘soccer rules’ brought me the info I needed for the book (what does a player have to do to get sent off the field?) without having to wade through reams of irrelevant info about starting positions and equipment regulations.
  3. 3. Don’t use research as an excuse to procrastinate. It’s very easy to convince yourself that you need to know and understand every aspect of a topic before you can write about it. When that week of research translates into three paragraphs in your novel you will realise that you don’t.
  4. When in doubt, keep it vague. I spent two days ‘researching’ and attempting to write a scene in which a soccer player is given a penalty for an offside foul before admitting to myself that I – along with millions of others – was never going to understand the offside rule, and just stating that the player got a foul. I don’t think the book loses anything for it. (That said, if soccer was a focus of the book, I couldn’t have gotten off so easily.) (That said, if I attempted to write a book with soccer as its focus I think my publisher would laugh me out of the building.)
  5. If you really can’t get your head around something, make it a topic your character doesn’t understand either. It’s no coincidence that Al, the main character in Little Sister, struggles with genotypes and phenotypes and alleles!
* It turned out that all the motivation I needed to get started was to publicly admit I'd procrastinated over it for a year. Must try that at the three-month point next time!

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