“How do you know when you’re done with research and ready to start writing?”
His response was swift and sharp:
“It’s when the book says stop mooching and start writing. Research will kill you if you’re not careful.”
For me, a book begins with an idea which slowly smothers the 86 other ideas I have swirling around my head and in note form across 17 different apps, word processors and writing tools. It’s the cuckoo in the nest, systematically kicking out all rivals until it’s the centre of my world.
From that point, I start to expand the idea into an outline, and then, just as I’m starting to enjoy myself, I bump up against something I don’t know. And I realise, with a shudder, that it’s time for research.
There’s a terrific contribution from Ricky Gervais to FastCompany’s online ‘Creation Stories’ series. As a teenager, he wondered why his outlandish tales of maverick cops and superhuman heroes were always dismissed by his English teacher, as “too melodramatic”. To make a point, Gervais decided to follow his teacher’s instruction to “write what you know” by delivering a painstaking account of one of his mother’s frequent care visits to an elderly neighbour (“The hall smelt of tea and lavender… My mum asked her if she had eaten yet, she said no she hadn’t”…)
Expecting the teacher to agree that it was dull and inferior compared to his “exciting” action-packed stories, Gervais was surprised to be awarded an ‘A’ grade.
“It taught me that honesty is what counts - because it connects. Trying to make the ordinary extraordinary is so much better than starting with the extraordinary. It’s your job to make an audience as excited about your subject as you are--and real life does that.”
I agree. But there’s only so much you already know. At some point, you’re going to want to write a story about something of which you have no direct experience.
My first novel, The Ghost, is very much a Write What You Know book. It’s the story of a contemporary film critic forced to confront a moment of appalling violence from his 1970s childhood. A major theme in the book is darkness--as hider, protector, concealer, as conceptual comfort from the harsh glare of the ‘real’ world. Since film critics spend a lot of their working lives retreating into darkened rooms--literally and figuratively escaping from reality--the vocation is a perfect fit for the story I wanted to tell.
Also, for a large chunk of my journalist career, I was a film critic. I attended almost nightly screenings at the cosseted, custom-built mini-cinemas scattered around Soho (no pre-movie adverts, free beer and food, production notes handed out at the door). I shuffled around with the privileged herd on various movie set visits, from the glamorous (Bond movies, Harry Potter) to the grotesque (The Fat Slags Movie). I went to Cannes – twice (at least one time too many), and I attended numerous Dorchester Hotel PR junkets, with their production-line fifteen-minute ‘one-on-one’ interviews in hangar-sized suites overlooking Hyde Park. (I once rattled through an absurd five-minute interrogation of Bruce Willis, practically shoved in and yanked out by his feral PR.)
So that much I knew and required no research. Similarly, since I was a child in the 1970s, the book’s childhood chapters arrived fully formed. The Ghost follows a dual timeline, switching between past and present. The past sections, while far from autobiographical, contain places and moments – and one or two actual people – gleaned from those gauzy, bell-bottomed memories. To evoke the past, I blended memory with fiction to create a rich psychogeography both strange and familiar. For the present-day chapters, I drew on more vocational experience to frame the main character’s steady fall and rise, as he faces a mortal reckoning for a moment of madness he had dismissed as ancient history.
But now, for my second novel, I want to strike out into foreign territory. The idea, as ever, has grown and dominated and been carefully outlined (with the help of Stuart Horwitz’s superb ‘Book Architecture’). It is a story set in a place I have never visited, in a situation I have never experienced, and although I have researched – read a couple of books, interviewed experts – it feels like it’s time for my creative drive to take it from here.
I’ve realised that my love of writing comes from settling into that sweet spot between experience and imagination, and I don’t want to dim that passion by doing so much research that it almost ends up telling my story for me.
Some novels can feel like research projects dressed up as fiction. The detail dominates; the author too eager to show what they know. I’m more interested in the psychology behind my characters--why they do what they do--rather than the authenticity of setting or procedural technicalities.
So, yes. It’s right to research--to unlock and illuminate the fiction you crave to create. But if you use it, as Hewson says, to ‘mooch’--as procrastination in disguise – then it will murder your enthusiasm.
The trick is to recognise the moment where the urge to crack your knuckles and dive in to a draft outweighs the anxiety of not ‘knowing’ enough about your subject.
As Gervais says, focus more on honesty and connection, as they are the qualities which will endure and entertain a reader. The rest is noise.
How do you approach the task of writing what you don’t know? Do you research in advance or as you work? How much do you focus on authenticity?
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HOW 2 WRITE WHAT U DON'T KNOW by @andylowe99 http://goo.gl/qSCk9u #theartistunleashed #writerslife #writetip