She responded much the way I might have if I hadn’t written so many of the darned things. She pointed out that most readers believe we write about things we know, and in fact common wisdom tells writers we should. Thinking about it, though, she realized anybody would run through what they know fairly quickly.
There’s another problem with writing only what we know. Sometimes we aren’t good judges as to what’s interesting and what’s not. For instance, a fresh eye sees detail that someone who has lived with it day after day no longer notices. I remember a throw-away line in a mystery by Elizabeth George. George is an American whose books are set in England and deal with English police work and law. But she has a keen eye for the tiniest detail. This particular one was one of many that steeps her novels in “place.” She mentioned a character who shredded stale bread and sprinkled the crumbs on her outside window ledge for the birds.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen this. Window ledges are rarer in the U.S. Yards tend to be larger and most of the time we hang bird feeders. We don’t crumble stale bread. We buy seed and work hard to outwit squirrels. So this detail was interesting enough to help me sink even further into George’s setting. But would someone who had seen those crumbs day after day have thought to add that detail?
I’ve written about many things I know little about, the two most complicated being fox hunting and Australian pearls. I do copious research and agonize. Occasionally I make mistakes, usually because I think I know something that turns out not to be true, and sometimes because a subject is too complex to realize what I’m missing.
I research in different ways at different stages of my novels.
- First I research my ideas to see if they are feasible. For instance I might have an idea about a circus performer who trains elephants only to discover that circuses are phasing elephants out of their shows. (Ringling Bros. just made this announcement.) Knowing this would help me make a decision about whether to go forward and change details to incorporate that new information, or jettison the idea completely because I also learned that a lot of people don’t like the idea of elephants in circuses and might hate the book. See?
- The second round of research comes when I’ve determined my idea, perhaps with judicious changes, is workable. Often I then steep myself in whatever I didn’t already know, so that as I plan the story, my general outline is not only accurate but the background helps shape the plot.
- The third round comes as I write. There’s no point in guessing what specifics I’ll need to know. I might spend a week researching a medical specialty, only to find that a doctor’s training and background is immaterial to my story and all I really need to know is how many patients he or she sees each day and how long appointments generally last.
Right now I’m working on the first round of research. I needed very little to present this idea to my publisher, but now I need to be certain that the idea develops in a way that’s realistic. Example? Both female characters have careers I know nothing about. Every detail needs to be plausible, so I will learn more than I’ll need to know–or ever, quite frankly, wanted to learn. The details I dug for will slip right by you. But they’ll also convince you–if I do this correctly–that I know what I’m talking about.
Recently I read a novel that ended with an author’s note. She admitted up front that the milieu of her story is so vast, she couldn’t possibly know everything or be accurate, so she’s just designed it to be what she wants it to be. The story is accurate in terms of her own world, but it’s not the real world.
Is that a cop out or plain good sense?
Have you been annoyed by inaccurate research? Have you been so turned off that you’ve stopped reading certain authors? Or are you happy as long as the story sweeps you away and “seems” real enough? As a reader I’ve been both, but as a novelist?
I’m not taking any chances.
Joni, who commented first on last Tuesday’s blog, was chosen by random.org to receive a signed copy of one of my novels. Thanks to all of you for your title suggestions. My own favorite is still, I think, Really Truly Sisters (none of you mentioned that one) but I’m definitely going to include More Than Sisters and Sisters Once Removed as possibilities for my publisher to consider. I loved your own original suggestions, too, and appreciate the creativity that went into them.