There is a famous adage in the writing world that says, “write what you know.”  I hate that adage.  It suggests that we never move outside the confines of our current knowledge and that, in essence, we reiterate and recycle that knowledge for all our years.  It prompts a timid and all-too-cautious approach to writing that is the ultimate cause, in my opinion, of very boring material.  But I do see the point.  After all, if you don’t know anything about football, writing a story about a professional football player’s anxiety over the big game is not going to come off well.  It will be superficial and ultimately, unconvincing.  That’s why I think that whoever first made the statement, “write what you know”, really should have said, “know what you write.” 

     And that is where research comes in.

     Research for me is mostly a proactive practice.  Although sometimes you are limited and must do a lot of reading on a subject, I think it’s important that, as often as possible, you experience the things you are writing about.  For me, this has meant some very interesting and mind-expanding adventures.  Most recently, for the sake of an idea I have for an upcoming story, I have made great friends with the nicest little Jehovah Witness woman.  She’s got to be a hundred and twelve years old and she is probably the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen.  I invite her into my house and listen to her stories, all the while trying not to stare too intently at her eyebrows which, bless her ancient heart, she is no longer able to paint on straight.  We know each other on a first name basis now, and although we more often talk about her past than the Kingdom of the Lord, I fully enjoy her company and have come to consider her a great friend.

    For another project, I spent some time in a Catholic church.  I wasn’t raised Catholic and so I knew nothing about the religion except what I’d seen on television.  Attending mass, I was surprised by how aerobic being a Catholic is. Sit, stand, pray, repeat!  I left exhausted, understanding not only why their services only last about forty-five minutes, but also why they give you a cracker at the end.  Later, I had a friend of mine who is educated on the religion go with me to the cathedral and explain all the different meanings of the trinkets and shiny things therein.  It was fascinating!

     Probably the most compelling experience I’ve had in research was my exploration of the BDSM community.  I was writing something that needed my understanding of the dynamic between Masters and their human slaves.  I spent a year searching for the local kink subculture before, quite coincidentally, finally happening upon it.  I was informed of a local fetish website, which I joined and soon began making friends.  Eventually, I realized that kink was all around me.  They even have kink classes at the local university!  Soon, I was invited to an actual “play party”, which is where kinksters get together for a night of fulfilling their fetishes.  I connived some friends of mine to go with me as my human slaves.  I wore eyeliner and dressed my pets in next to nothing, put them on leashes on headed to the event with an odd mixture of trepidation and awe. Had I been more practiced, I suppose the four of us would have even gotten in and out of narrow doorways with a little more grace, but hey… I dare you to try toting two women and one man around on leashes in a cool, debonair manner!  For the most part though, we fit right in and I was able to meet some of the most fascinating people I ever have, some of whom I remain good friends with to this day.   I saw all kinds of things that fueled my imagination.  I was hesitant about participating much, with the exception of letting a trusted kinkster hit me with a bamboo stick, (yes, Martha, I did!), and I left with a deeper understanding of and respect for the community and it’s practices (as well as a big bruise on my ass).

     Perhaps hardest of all, is the research I have been doing for the project I am currently working on.  I’m writing about a narcissistic serial killer who was abused severely by his mother and later, his foster-father.   Since it’s in no ones interest for me to experience this stuff first hand, I have been doing a lot of reading on the minds of serial killers and the lives they lived.  It’s disturbing and  hellish and I am eager to be done with it.  I have learned things I’m not sure I ever wanted to know, but it’s important to me that I understand the characters I write. 

     So no, I don’t believe in only writing what you know, but I do believe in knowing what you write.   Research is a necessary part of writing, the great myth being, of course, that it involves hours of tedious reading about dull subjects.  In truth though, research is, in some ways, the best part about writing.  Something I have come to understand is that there’s a big difference between knowing a thing on an intellectual level, and truly understanding it.  I think that in order to write a convincing account of anything, a writer must possess full comprehension of his subject.  When you write something without that base understanding, readers know. 

     A lot of writers take the liberty of assuming a position of superiority.  After all, writing is a one way form of communication; you can not be interrupted and argued with mid-sentence.  But, what writers should realize is that, in truth, the reader has the power.  All he or she has to do is close the book.  And this knowledge is what prompts me to continue knowing what I write.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. GREAT post!

    I have always heard “write what you know,” too, and it bugged me, because as a Romance/Chick Lit writer, I have always wanted to write a mystery, and I know nothing about crimes and law stuff, except for the things I see on the TV, and even most of that’s not even real.

    Thank you for your new way of thinking, which I will begin to use a motto, “know what you write,” and of course, I hope you don’t mind.

    Have a great day/night!

  2. […] isn’t “write what you know,” instead, “know what you write.”  Click HERE to read this man’s […]

  3. Also, know that I have added a blog about this post on my blog. (I hope you don’t mind).

  4. Linda Bennett says:

    I do so enjoy reading your blog, Jared. I guess we never stop learning, do we? You are a very intelligent and well rounded. Having you for a friend has enhanced my life, even though we have never met in person.

  5. One of the most important parts of writing is the willingness to keep an open mind to experiencing things outside your comfort level. I’m always so proud of the risks you are willing to take, and it’s always an adventure to hang with you on some of these research trips!

  6. […] Know what you write:  This post was very interesting and made me sit back and think about some of the themes I’m writing about, and the importance of being informed on what I’m writing.  As you’ve seen from the first three installments, politics takes an important role in this story.  I’m pretty clueless about what causes government upheaval, but I’ve learned a lot studying the history of certain countries (I’m looking into Argentina’s Dirty War for examples of how to move the story along) and I’m taking a class on comparative government. […]

  7. It’s interesting to see this point of view. I can’t say fore sure if I agree or not, but it is something I will think about now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s