Write What You Know. Or Just Research It!

Actually, that “write what you know” thing is a little misleading. After all, I’m reasonably certain Charles Portis had never been a fourteen-year-old girl when his classic Western novel True Grit was published in 1968. Or, for that matter, after. :)

You can write about things you haven’t personally experienced—of course you can. But you should research them. (Something Sarah Mlynowski failed to do, since a character in her 2001 novel Milkrun puts a bouquet of red tulips in an empty wine bottle. Give that some thought: it takes my whole fist to hold even a small bouquet of tulips.) Yes, your editor is going to help you—and in Mlynowski’s case I do blame the editor—but you should do your best to be accurate. Check your own facts. Research.

“Write what you know” is good advice, but sometimes it’s misinterpreted. Some people say it’s about writing from a deep place, about being human and real. It’s about emotion: if you’ve experienced longing or loss, anticipation or joy, you write characters who know how those things feel. And I definitely agree.

But I also think it’s a case of write what you understand. Some things you understand because you’ve lived them (having been a mother, for example) … some because you’ve read about them (referring to events in a historic diary, for example). And sometimes you have to get out from behind the computer screen and go talk to people. Go and do. Because authenticity comes from experience. From understanding gained during research. From holding those tulips in your hand.

My friend Sarah Thomas wrote a delightful blog post about doing research for her novels: she learned to cook on a wood stove so she could write it into a story. My friend Michelle Ule has written more than one post about researching her latest novel. (She doesn’t mention the historic luxury hotel and the massage, but they were part of the research too.) My friend Cindy Thomson recently traveled to New York City to research the nineteenth-century immigrant experience, which included a stop at Ellis Island. What she learned will appear in a novel soon as well.

Recently I went to a lecture on a piece of local history that may appear in a book an author friend of mine is working on. She couldn’t make it (doesn’t live here), and already has access to the information under discussion, but it was a chance for me, her editor, to network with a local historian.

And I did.

I’ll bring my friend to meet the historian when she visits later this year to do more research. But the historian also suggested other folks for me to contact about a different project I am working on—a memoir of a gentleman who grew up in Memphis but spent summers with his extended family right here in my little Middle Tennessee town.

It’s said Portis got the inspiration for the voice of Mattie Ross, his fourteen-year-old protagonist, from work he did in college for the Northwest Arkansas Times: he was tasked with “redacting religious and folksy ornamentation” from the reportage of “lady stringers” the paper employed. These colorful phrases didn’t work well in journalism but were just right for his brilliant novel. May you be as fortunate when you go out to “know” what you will later write.

Tweet: Authenticity comes from experience. From holding those tulips in your own hand.

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3 Comments

  1. Bates says:

    Like this short story I’m writing involves a character digging up a grave. I’m researching how that whole hole-crypt-casket thing works. The physics of digging up a dead body, well, it’s just not readily acceptable information.

    • Jamie says:

      LOL! True! And nowadays they use machines. I guess you could go out into the backyard and dig a very large hole, see what that feels like. :)

  2. […] Back to Jamie Chavez Read>Play>Edit Your sometimes cranky editor writes about books, writing, & editing, words & language, and the publishing industry. Skip to content About « Write What You Know. Or Just Research It! […]

  3. Mari Adkins says:

    Poorly researched anything hurts me. Back in the summer I read a book by a local woman – set locally. So much in the book was so wrong! It hurt! What I really can’t stand is when the author obviously has thought, “Well, the average reader isn’t going to notice, so it isn’t going to matter.” :shudder: I’m editing a piece now set in BC Memphis Egypt. One of the characters said, “tykes,” at one point. I told the author that while the MC may be writing the book today, he can’t, in my opinion, substitute current language for ancient language. And so on and so forth.

  4. […] My friends are still researching. But soon the traveling will commence: there are museums to be visited, archives to be mined, meetings to be taken, cemeteries to be walked. All this will be focused and intentional, based on the preparation made possible by studying and researching online sources. It’s going to make a great story, and one of these days I’m going to tell you about it. :) […]

  5. […] That, however, is a story for another day. You can read Editor Jamie Chavez’s opinion right here. […]

  6. […] talked here about the importance of research (here too) and getting the details right (here too), but this is the information you need to pull […]

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  1. […] Back to Jamie Chavez Read>Play>Edit Your sometimes cranky editor writes about books, writing, & editing, words & language, and the publishing industry. Skip to content About « Write What You Know. Or Just Research It! […]

  2. By Research—Online or Hands On? on 5 January, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    […] My friends are still researching. But soon the traveling will commence: there are museums to be visited, archives to be mined, meetings to be taken, cemeteries to be walked. All this will be focused and intentional, based on the preparation made possible by studying and researching online sources. It’s going to make a great story, and one of these days I’m going to tell you about it. :) […]

  3. […] That, however, is a story for another day. You can read Editor Jamie Chavez’s opinion right here. […]

  4. […] talked here about the importance of research (here too) and getting the details right (here too), but this is the information you need to pull […]