Write what you know – make the rest up
There’s a long-standing premise that as writers we’re supposed to write about subjects we have a fair amount of interest in or knowledge of. This doesn’t mean that we have to write stories about ‘the day job,’ because, trust me, a blow by blow account of what I do for a living would make for a pretty dull read. What it does mean is that we use the knowledge acquired through our day job or hobbies to enrich our writing.
Researching an unfamiliar subject is much easier now that we have the internet. The trouble is that when we actively sit down and collate a mountain of material we risk falling into the trap of wishing to include every minute detail in our story. “I’ve researched it, so I’ll use it.” This entices us to write great swathes of ‘info dump’ and slow up the plot, simply because we feel we must share this knowledge with our readers. It’s akin to putting too much salt in the stew – it spoils the flavour.
Conversely, when we’re already well acquainted with a subject we’ll sprinkle in just the right amount of information because talking about it comes naturally. This is adding seasoning to our stew, not swamping it in salt.
One of my all-time favourite writers is Dick Francis (and now his son Felix Francis). For those of you who don’t know, Dick Francis was a champion jockey and his crime novels revolve around the world of horse racing. Narrated in the first person, his main protagonists are usually a jockey, but sometimes a bookie, trainer or owner. When Dick Francis writes about the life of a jockey, the workings of a training stable and the races, it’s so unbelievably real that you can even smell the unmentioned horse manure. Okay, so Francis chose to write about his day job, but with a twist of crime. The thing is; that when he steps outside his comfort zone, even I, one of his greatest fans, have to admit that the info dumps stand out like glaring holes in the centre of an otherwise smooth road.
If someone as masterful as Dick Francis slipped up then how on earth are we ever to avoid the dreaded ‘info dump’?
The main tip is, regardless of your genre, to include subjects that you’re familiar with. Even when writing fantasy, stick to what you know. If you have a passion for plants then it’s perfect that your heroine should make magical potions out of flowers. You’ll already know the names of plants, the colours of their blooms and which season they flower in. You can easily transfer this knowledge to your fictitious world and ensure that each plant your heroine requires will only be available during a particular time of year. If you know nothing about plants, even fantasy plants, then it’ll be far more difficult to build a coherent, believable world.
If, on the other hand, you always pick up rocks on the beach and are entranced by their colour and how smooth or rugged they feel under your thumb, then heck, make your heroine’s magical potions out of rocks. You know rocks and you know how to describe them. This will make all of your descriptive passages believable.
All stories are a blend of fact and fiction. Fiction is the part we make up, the story arc and the moving tale we wish to share with others. Facts are the glue that holds our story together.
In my novels, even though they’re mysteries and often include police procedural events, I home in on things I know about -art, antiques, photography, motorcycles and 4×4 off-road vehicles. I’m more likely to give my protagonist a motorcycle to ride in a chase scene than a sports car, because I understand the mechanics and limitations of a motorcycle and know squat about high-performance vehicles. In my Jake Talbot Investigates series I gave Talbot antiques as a hobby, because I love antiques and can quickly bring to mind the type of item that will fit well into a scene.
With my current work in progress, Murder in the Meadow, I’ve gone one stage further and made my protagonist an antiques dealer. In my life, ferreting around in one of my favourite antique shops is what wet and windy days were made for. I know what they stock, I know how they feel and I’m always learning snippets of useful information from the long-suffering dealers who have to put up with me.
If you ask me to write in any detail about a woman having her legs waxed I’d fail miserably. I’ve never had my legs waxed and have no personal insight into what goes on. I could use my imagination to create the scene, but without extensive research I’d stumble when describing the smells within the beauty parlour or how the process feels on the skin. No, I shall not be having my legs waxed in order to write this scene! But…I would if I really needed to include it!
You have loads of knowledge. Use it to glue your story together. When adding heavily researched material, use it wisely and sparingly – season, don’t spoil.
What knowledge do you use in your writing that directly relates to your hobbies, pastimes or work? I’d love to hear from you: just drop me a line in the comments box.