|Don't Write What You Know, Know What You Write
||[Sep. 17th, 2014|06:55 pm]
Well, two months since my last blog entry. Let's see if I can get back in this habit after a crazy-busy summer.
Every now and then I have to do something writing-related...but not writing itself...to remember or get a handle on how it is I do what I do. In today's case I spoke with a group of eight upperclassmen about research - all kinds of research, since four of the students are doing a non-fiction thesis, and four a creative writing project. This was an English class taught by a professor I've known my whole time here at Ferrum, Lana Whited, who is probably best known off campus as the editor of The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter. Lana was familiar with Lest Camelot Fall, asked me to contribute an essay to her new upcoming Harry Potter anthology, and so invited me to come talk to her class about the way I do research.
This was where my brain stumbled.
I've done research for so long and do it so often that if I don't do something like give a presentation about it now and then, it becomes so ingrained that I have difficulty explaining how I do it. That was the case here, too, to the point where last night and this morning I had to sit down with Laurie so she could help me break it down and remember all the major points I should be talking about. What I ended up doing was a whirlwind through the major points, unstructured but rather based on reading the prologue of Camelot followed by the occasional question from Lana, and then a question-answer round with the students, though I did hit all the highlights.
And thus breaking down my process, here are a few of the points I made:
This is the Golden Age of research. When I grew up your library had books, magazines, and newspapers--at the time there wasn't even any interlibrary loan, at least where I lived--and if they didn't have what you needed, you were out of luck. (Maybe you'd get lucky and find something at the local bookstore, but that was also hit and miss.) Nowadays almost everything is out there somewhere online if you know how to find it.
I don't usually dispute Stephen King, but I counseled that they avoid his advice of "Write the story first, and then do your research". I know why he advises this, but so many of my storylines, plot points, characters, and just cool stuff in general have come from research that I did before any writing commenced. in Camelot, for example, the characters of Gerralt and Drystan--Mordred's sons--were a straight-up research discovery. I hadn't even realized Mordred had sons, but in many of the early Welsh stories, there they were.
So by all means make your outline, and don't get so buried in the research you never start writing or you sink your story with too much research...but never discount it in the pre-writing stages entirely.
Don't "Write what you know", but "Know what you write". I know that "Write what you know" is usually badly misinterpreted, but that's a big reason why I rearranged it. I say write about anything you want - but make sure you know what you're talking about. James Michener used to say that he got so well-versed in the places and eras he wrote about that he could teach a master's level class in them after his books were written. I don't know if you should go that far, but my own research has always been extensive, and I also gave the example of Laurie writing the biography of J.K. Rowling for the upcoming Harry Potter anthology. Laurie spent hours upon hours reading about Rowling, reading and watching interviews of her, watching Rowling's speeches, and so on, for a biography that would only be 2,000 words. Yet it isn't a biography of dry dates and facts but rather, thanks to all that work, one getting at the core of who Rowling is and what drove her to wrote the Harry Potter books, along with why she wrote them as she did.
But I also explained that this didn't just mean places and things, but also your own characters. Get to know them as well as your best friends, and the places those characters live as well as your own home. And then, quoting Ernest Hemingway's "tip of the iceberg", don't put 90% of what you know in the story. But knowing them that well fleshes them out and makes them believable.
Don't just stick to the library, but do boots on the ground research whenever you can. Approach people who are experts in their fields. Talk to them. Most people, if they have time, are happy to share what they know with you, if they believe you're passionate about it too and will do right by the material. I gave them my favorite personal anecdote about this - how a descendant of the Apache leader Geronimo gave me a story about Geronimo's days hiding in the mountains of Arizona that I never before or since ran across in a book, but which went into my novel Copper Heart. I'd say there's an even chance that if I'd stuck to books I would never have run across that story, and yet it was a pivotal moment in Geronimo's life.
Read broadly, and don't just stick to researching in your own discipline. I've long since lost count of how many times I've seen articles that say things like "We don't know who built the great Chaco temples in New Mexico, or why they abandoned them, or who built the massive cliff dwellings in the Southwest, or why people abandoned those." If you think to ask the Hopi themselves, which I did, they'll give you long and detailed explanations about who built them and why they were abandoned.
Everything is research. I get ideas from everywhere: articles in magazines and newspapers, snippets of overheard conversations, people watching, history books, and wondering about the answers to questions I come up with. Anything from a war to someone's personal quirk or manner of speech might end up in a story or poem. A good researcher is someone who always keeps their senses open and is ready to note anything.
And finally, to make a point rather than showing any disrespect, I went to the class wearing a Shakespeare's Skum t-shirt featuring cartoon versions of Shakespearian villains which I bought a few years ago at the Maryland Renaissance Faire. The point was this: We all got into writing for a reason, and a big part of that reason is that writing is simply fun. It's hard to remember that sometimes when you're buried in research, or you have deadlines breathing down your neck, but sometimes you need to remember not to take yourself or the work too seriously, but step back and enjoy it. In my case, when I need to do this now and again, wearing the Shakespeare's Skum t-shirt - or my Shakespeare in the Empire Tour t-shirt, designed by my friend Dan Fahs many years ago and which features Shakespeare as a Klingon per Star Trek VI - helps me remember that.
The professor greatly enjoyed the presentation and thanked me enthusiastically afterwards. I hope the students enjoyed it just as much. Better still, I hope they got something worthwhile out of it.