W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, May 09, 2005

No 6. Research - Truth in Fiction


Write what you know.

I first heard this phrase in my senior year of high school in Reading MA. I was writing a short story for my favorite English teacher, Mr. D'Orlando, the first person to make me think critically by over using the word "why." The story I was doing was about a train in Germany. Naturally, never having been further than Boston and never having ridden in a train, I got it all wrong. Mr. D'Orlando had passed the story back with the suggestion to write what I know. When I moved to Germany years later and rode on my first German train compartment, I saw where I'd failed.

However, if we wrote only what we know, we would write about ourselves. That can get very boring. As writers we want to explore new ideas, places, cultures, etc.

Most writers have limited resources. I'm sure few of us could afford to jump on a plane to check out what a German train is like. But there are ways to research to give a feeling of truth to our fiction.

Today, more than ever, research is easier, especially with the web supplementing the older methods: books, newspapers and articles. An advantage of the web, there is often a contact that will get back with more information. A webmaster recently came back to me with more details than I ever wanted to know on vipers in the Pyrenees. He even forwarded photos and told me where I could buy the little darlings. I said "merci" for the info, but passed on the purchase option

The interview is something that many writers forget. Do you want to do a short story about adoption but grew up with your natural parents? Interview adoptees. Have a character who is a policeman? Go to your local police station (we won't discuss the suspicious looks that I got when I went into a French police station to ask about French gun laws). Most people are more than happy to discuss themselves, their work or special interest area.

There was one story I was working on about a journalist who crossed the Sahara, where I've never been and probably will never go. Luckily I had a friend, an anthropologist, who had crossed that desert several times. As, I treated him to a dinner of Boston Scrod, he told me about a bus driver that he had ridden with, the number of times the bus had broken down, how they'd propped the bus up on boards to change a tire, the different types of sand they'd seen and the food they'd eaten in villages too small to be on any map. His information led to several plot twists. Best of all he happily looked over my manuscript to correct any inaccuracies. The result was another person who had made a similar trip, called me to get together so we could share experiences. I confessed I'd never been there, and it took a little convincing until I revealed my wonderful source.

Our settings don't have to be as exotic as the Sahara. We can easily get caught up in everyday details that show we don't know what we are talking about. In my writing group's critiquing session, a friend questioned my knowledge of horses. I'd mentioned a horse's soft tongue. My friend, an accomplished horsewoman, informed me that horse tongues were anything but soft.

We sometimes can test activities in our writing. I had a character move a body wrapped in a blanket uphill. Two of my test readers asked if the heroine were strong enough. My poor daughter, who is bigger than I am, was pressed into service. Some neighbors watched from their balconies as I tugged her uphill wrapped in a pink blanket. She did a great job as a dead weight. I changed the uphill part of the story to downhill and shortened the distance from the original version. Only one neighbor asked why, although I suspect many would have liked to.

Time research. When I lived in Boston I loved going to the Boston Public Library to look at old Time and Newsweek magazines. If I set a piece in a period, I always thumbed issues from the year I was writing about. It showed me what was happening in the news, the ads, the clothing, what music was popular. My Australian writing mate has a wonderful book which is a timeline through history that she generously shares.

Barnes & Noble put in an annual agenda featuring writers a great chart where you could tell which day of the week any date in history appeared on. I keep a copy taped to the side of my desk. Not pretty, but I can find it easily.

The information is out there. The important thing is to look for it to make sure your fiction is "true". That's another way about writing what you know. Learn about it.


Giving examples of research isn't as simple as other topics W3 has covered.

There is a danger that writers should avoid called If-I-learned-about-it-I'm-going-to-show-my-readers-everything-I-learned-even-if-it-breaks-the-rhythm-of-the-story syndrome.

Example 1

Christine decided to tour the perfume factory in Grass, a town in Southern France where perfume is made. The villagers grow flowers on the surrounding hillsides perfuming the area with their scents. These flowers are picked and distilled in copper vats then mixed in a laboratory until the right balance is created. Grass is about a half hour drive from Nice.

The perfume-making lesson is author intrusion.

However, research can be incorporated far more subtly as in the next example.

Example 2

Christine stopped her little car in front of the brick building with the sign saying, "Tours" almost hidden by ivy. She glanced at her watch. Why not? Her husband would be tied up in his meeting for hours, and she had escaped the confusion and heat of Nice.

Road signs had pointed her to the town of Grass just as the concierge had said they would. He'd told it was the world center for perfume, and if the flowers that hid the hillside as she climbed that twisty little road, were any indication, he was right. At least she wasn't going to spend this entire trip to France a prisoner in a hotel waiting for her husband to finish this or that deal.

A woman with a white lab coat greeted her at the door. "Do you want the tour?" she asked.

Christine nodded. The woman led her to a room with a long table and hundreds of bottles each with a white label with the name of the scent handwritten in blue ink. "This is our mixing room," the woman said. As the woman talked Christine kept trying to remember what was so familiar about her.

In this example the elements of the research about the French city of Grass are interwoven into the story. They are used as mixed with elements of the plot about the less than happy wife.


1. Interview someone about their work, holiday, etc. than use that information for a short story. Make sure you know nothing about the subject before you start.

2. On the web look up a newspaper in another area and research a local political scandal or event. Then find a map of the area and photos. Find out some statistics about population, the local cultural life, the number of hospitals until you have the feel of the area.


Last month as I sent out the newsletter, I realized how international my readership is. I found readers with email addresses from Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and the USA.Many of my readers are writing in English in a country where their mother tongue is not the main language. This can be both enriching and frustrating. Writing is a lonely pastime at best, but language isolation (even if we speak the host country's tongue) adds another dimension.


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