Write What You (Don't) Know, Part II

Earlier this week, I wrote about writing what (or who) you know, where I looked at the ways an author's background and circle of associates can influence her characters and setting. Today, I'll be dishing on writing what you don't know on subjects about which you haven't an earthly clue.

At the moment, this is much on my mind because I've bitten off a humongous challenge, taking on a really exciting project that deals with some pretty tricky legal and psychological concepts - concepts about which I have only an interested layman's knowledge and no credentials whatsoever to write about. Unless you count chutzpah, which counts for plenty in this business.

You've gotta have some serious audacity to take whatever expertise you can glean from books, the 'net, and interviews and convince your reader that you know far more than is appearing in the story. I've found that if you lay in enough real facts to gain the reader's trust (the earlier, the better), you can fudge a little (or fictionalize) and bring your merry bands of readers along for the ride.

The trick is doing enough research that you can convincingly BS your way to the reader's Willing Suspension of Disbelief. A skilled novelist is often a bit of a con artist, subbing in borrowed jargon, collected factoids, and, perhaps a more expert acquaintance's opinion in place of a real depth of knowledge.

There are dangers a-plenty in failing to do one's homework. When knowledgeable readers are jerked out of the story, they'll seldom give the author a second shot.

But over-researching is equally dangerous. If you substitute the joy of researching (this is directed to my fellow library nerds) for the joy of writing, the manuscript simply never happens. Worse yet, you might succumb to the temptation to wow the reader with every speck of trivia you've gleaned. Not only does nobody like a show-off, knowledge dumps, usually in the form of narrative, can seriously bog down your story.

How do you maintain a balance between not enough and too much research? Do you prefer sticking with familiar topics, or, like me, do you enjoy writing about what you truly wish to know?


Lark said…
Even if I'm writing what I know, digging up realistic details to bring a story to life is one of the joys of writing IMO. My heroine can't fly a generic seaplane and my hero doesn't carry a generic pistol. They deserve better and so does a reader.

I get past dumping all my research onto the page by keeping Word docs full of data in my Research folder to refer back to when I need it. Unfortunately I can still waste hours finding a viable harbor on Google Earth or digging through dolphin books looking for the perfect tidbit that makes the story work.
Suzan Harden said…
Then there's those topics you're an expert (or at least fairly knowledgable), you've intersperse such knowledge in a reasonable and non-data-dump manner, and you still have judges/editors/agents say its wrong. *grin* Sometimes, I just have throw up my hands and say WTF.
You're a woman after my own heart. I live for anal-retentive details and have spend more time than I'll ever admit looking up the correct historical moon phase (or forecasting one, in my contemporary) for a night time scene. It's a sickness, but I wouldn't want to find a cure.

Sometimes judges are pinheads. ;) And other times, it just means you haven't sufficiently established your expertise and made them trust you. Sometimes, getting people to buy a truth is harder than making them swallow the lie. Weird, huh?
Vicky said…
As a historical author, I've learned the hard way to write the scene & make sure it's a keeper (forwards the plot, character conflicts, etc) before I spend too much time researching some obscure detail. The Beau Monde chapter is a great resource, but I've also learned that some "experts" aren't always right. You have to check your own resources. As for writing what I know, I don't think of it literally. Rather I think writers should write about themes, conflicts, and characters that resonate with the author. For example, in the book I just sold, Betrayal is a huge theme in various forms. I didn't plan it, but subconsciously, it was an undercurrent throughout the book. Given my own life experiences, it made sense. I've heard well-known authors say that certain themes show up again and again in their works. And it's because those themes are meaningful to the author. In turn, these themes which are universal affect readers who often can identify with them.
I like the idea of writing the scene first, making sure it's working and necessary to the story, before doing too much research. I begin by doing "overview" research, reading a few books and other sources to help me gather ideas. That I research for detail where I need it as I write. Otherwise, I'd never get the darned thing finished.
Oh, this is a fun topic...

I enjoy the balance of reasearch and 'making up' - which is why I write Historical Fantasy :)

I love grounding a world in a certain timeline-reality, and the fun tension comes from pitting (in my case paranormal) ideas against that established construct. And then, if something isn't working out... in comes the supernatural ex machina and we're golden. :) It's such a fun way to 'cheat' - cheating imaginatively is why we call it fiction, right?

Also, I like the idea of reasearch more than I like actually doing it... There. I said it. *ducks the airtight accuracy tomato throwing brigade*

I'm definately a 'grazer' when it comes to research, I will look for the specific answer to a question otherwise I'll get steeped and sidetracked (easily distracted, I am) and never get anything done.

I'm excited to see what you come up with in this project, Colleen! Sounds engaging!
Hi, Leanna,
Glad you stopped by.

I can definitely see where historical fantasy would be a lot of fun. But world building comes with its own set of challenges, so you're probably not getting off too easily.

After writing a number of fact-based American historicals, I was asked to write a historical nonfiction re. one of the events I covered. Couldn't figure out how to do it without living the scenes through my character's eyes.

Fiction is really just a bunch of lying that's informed by great truth. :)
jenny milchman said…
I believe in enlisting experts, and live for those moments when one says EXACTLY what I wanted my character to say...

Colleen, one not-useless thing I bring to the table is a near complete doctorate in psych (I also practiced for 13 years) so please feel free to aim any questions along those lines my way...
That's not a useless thing at all for a writer. I'll definitely keep that in mind!

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