"Write what you know" is the advice most often given to beginning writers. If you know about something, how hard is it to put what you know down on paper? Maybe you know more than you think you do. Somewhere in my teaching career, the catch-phrase for teaching students to write became “brainstorm”. Please. “Think about what you might write, and make some notes” sounds like a more mature approach.
So you’ve come up with a subject and written down everything you know about it. Are there gaps in your knowledge? Nonfiction writers expect to research their subject. Why should fiction writers be any different?
"The devil's in the details. . ." says to me that if you want something to be credible, whether fiction or nonfiction, you need to be sure of your facts. Research them, double-check them, and don't expect to slip something by your readers who just may know more than you do about a subject.
I’ve had a couple of experiences with finding my own research lacking.
- Finding Papa's Shining Star, my second novel with The Wild Rose Press, deals with the conflict between the two lovers: one knows who he is, and the other just thinks she has it together. David, raised in a far-from-orthodox Jewish home, returns from World War II after spending a year and a half in Dachau because of his Jewish heritage and the fact that he speaks fluent German. The months spent trying to survive the concentration camp have heightened his awareness about what it means to be a Jew and his responsibility to be part of the new Jewish homeland of Israel. I did a great deal of research to make sure the historical timeline and references to Shabbat, the Hebrew language, synagogues, and so on were accurate. Still, I recognized my non-Jewish interpretation of what I read could lead to problems. Fortunately, I found someone who could answer my questions about some of the details I wasn't convinced were 100% accurate. .
- Then when I began writing the Penelope Pembroke Cozy Mystery Series, I knew nothing about Catholicism. Fortunately, I knew someone who did, a cradle Catholic, and I also found myself welcomed to classes at the local Catholic Church. When I released the books, I felt confident I’d done my best to insure the accuracy of each reference. One reviewer called me on a single detail--but after thinking about it, I realized I’d correctly described something I’d seen in the local church.
The Bottom Line
Bottom line: when writing what you know, be sure you know what you write. To me, it's about respect for my subject and my readers. Credibility is everything. I've "tuned out" on books where I've found misstatements. Yes, there’s the concept of literary license, and most fiction authors make use of it. But there’s a difference between shaping facts to follow the story line and edging into the realm of unbelievability.
Write what you know--and be sure you know all of it.
Write what you don’t know--and find someone who does!
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