‘Write what you know.’ I’ve heard that advice a lot through the years, but I’ve never liked it. It makes it sound like writers can’t learn anything new. And unless you happen to be a firefighter, or an FBI agent, or maybe a circus clown, most things that your average person knows really doesn’t make for good novel material. Not to mention, it’s incredibly limiting and boring. The advice makes it seem like a writer is stuck on one track. Forever.
I’ve been skiing and snowboarding since I could walk, and there’s a saying I grew up with: ‘If you didn’t fall all day, then you didn’t challenge yourself.’ You didn’t learn anything new. The same applies to writing. A writer needs to challenge themselves if they are going to grow.
I’m currently working on Ravenwood #2. The first draft is beating me to a pulp, but that’s all right; I knew it was going to be a complicated story. I have no idea how it will turn out, but I’m determined to finish. And, at the very least, I’ll know that I challenged myself and learned (hopefully) something in the process.
Before I wrote From the Ashes, all I knew about my native area was that there was an earthquake in 1906 and the weather in San Francisco defies logic. Research, however, has thrown me down all kinds of trails. And it’s not just book learning. When a beta-reader insisted that my MC would get hypothermia in 54-60 degree Fahrenheit water: I jumped off a ferry sans wetsuit and swam to shore from Alcatraz. Now I can say with confidence that she would not get hypothermia (It was actually quite refreshing, and I signed up to swim the Golden Gate in September).
Research has also pushed me to play the tourist in my own city. A recently toured a 1885 Victorian Queen Anne. And I realized that I’m that person in a tour group who now asks all the idiotic questions like… are these the original electrical plugs? Was there a telephone? Are these the original locks? Did they call this a ‘Victorian’ Queen Anne during the Victorian era? And I’m that person who the tour guide wants to chuck out a window when he asks super special questions that he wants to amaze everyone with and I blurt out the answer: “It’s for toasting
bread.” Why didn’t everyone else know that?
I’ve bought lock picks (and now I know more than I probably should know about them). I had to consult with an Electrical Engineer about an obscure 1890s electrical device. To quote him: ‘No man would willing put that thing on and climb into a bathtub.’ Yes, but would it kill him?
There’s a side effect to research, too. I find myself blurting out obscure facts to random people. My poor physical therapist received a ten minute discourse on the Chinese Exclusion Act. Seemingly innocent little words throw me into a recitation of facts, like where the word ‘gurney’ came from. I’ve been reading up on sailing, too. I didn’t know anything about it before I randomly decided to make my MC a sailor. Today, I went sailing. And what was great. I loved it. Even more, I had done enough research to have an intelligent conversation with a man who had been sailing the world for 40 years. And that’s what I love about research. It helps me ask the right questions to people who have made something a life passion.
The saying shouldn’t be ‘write what you know’; instead, it should be ‘write what you previously didn’t know’.