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

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

No: 36 Writing What You Don't Know -- Research

Write What You Don’t Know – Research
W3 Issue 36

W3 is updated by the 15th of every month.

Old issues are still available at http://www.blogger.com/index.html as well as on this site.

Please share W3 with your writing friends. Teachers: use anything from W3. If you quote us please give our blog site. I welcome comments: donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr

Next month I will write about forming good writing habits.


Writers are told to write what they know. If taken literally we would only write about our lives. The implication is men can’t write about women or vice versa. A lawyer couldn’t write about doctors, etc. No historical novel would be written, unless the author knew for sure s/he was reincarnated from a previous time period. Science fiction couldn’t exist.

The premise is false. The advice rules out imagination. More importantly it rules out research, which brings in what we don’t know into our knowledge framework.

There are many ways to do research.

The Obvious

Internet: Google, dogpile name more and other search engines are a blessing because what we need is merely a few clicks away. No need to go to the library. One of the problems with an internet search is it gives us more than we need. A hint to reduce the number of listings: put in as many terms or words as possible. If you want to experiment try a few tests. Bill Clinton brings up 41 million hits. Bill Clinton Hillary equal 6.6 million. Bill Clinton Hillary Monica shows 1.1 million. Bill Clinton Hillary Monica Trent Lott raises 60,600. Bill Clinton Hillary Monica Trent Lott impeachment and it is down to 12,6000.

Books: Reading about a subject, person, time period provides great information. I am researching Geneva during the time of Calvin and fell across a book about that period at a street market. Hint: Amazon.com is a great place to see what exists on a subject before visiting your local library. Don’t forget university libraries. Often you can’t remove the books, but you can use the books there.

Travel: If you really want to get the feeling of a place, visit it. Walk the streets, go into grocery stores, check out the cemeteries, if possible a private home, real estate agents, national museums. Hint: if where you are visiting a locality that has a university, contact the department that is in your area of interest and hire a student in that field: archeology, history, art, music.

The Less Obvious

Travel: If your budget doesn’t allow you to visit a place, use travel guides. Talk to people who have visited there or better find a native. Although I never crossed the Sahara, I have friends who did. They told me their adventures giving me the small details that made it seem as I actually was there when I wrote my story. Hint: Be sure and use a map, and be careful of details: if you say Straight Street in Damascus has no shops, you would be wrong. You need to know what is on the streets that you name.

Consulates: Often a consulate officer will be willing to provide information. It was easy to find out what relationship an American of Irish parents needed to do to become an Irish citizen by an email to the local consulate. Many have booklets about their country.

CIA: The CIA has information about each country on the internet. www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos

Professional Experts: Find a professor, lawyer, doctor, policeman or someone who is in the profession that you need information about. You will be amazed at how many people are willing to answer questions. I’ve had funeral directors tell me about burial rules, a medievalist tell me how to build a fire for burning a witch, a man who translates ancient languages talk about cuneiform letters from the ancient city of Ebla, a snake expert describe vipers in the Pyrenees. Sometimes a simple email is all that you need. Other times it may be necessary to request an interview. Almost everyone wants to share their knowledge when asked politely Hint: If it is an interview, I almost send/take a small thank you gift.

Non experts: Why would you want to go to a non-expert? Because the person has experience you might want to incorporate. If you are a professional woman who has never been a housewife and your main character is a mother who never worked, you might want to talk to women in that situation. If you are a man who is writing about a woman who has a hysterectomy talk to women who have had them. Ask the person if they would be willing to read a draft to make sure you have captured the experience.

Manufacturers: Many are willing to send out information on their products. The PR department is always the best contact.

Newspapers/magazines: Good libraries have back issues on film. Don’t just look at your main subject, but notice the advertising, the books and movies showing of the period. For example in the 1940s cigarettes were advertised as being good for your health. At the end of WWII stories in women’s magazines switched from women as workers to the glories of housework. All this can help you create an ambience of the epoch you are writing.

Photographs: Details can be gleaned from scenery, buildings, clothing.

Television: Watch programs about the subject. Many stations will provide transcripts of program. Try and search their archives or write their PR departments or the director.

Double Check **Double Check

When you write about what you don’t know, it is important to double check. In a novel a Bostonian was said to love a local dish shoo fly pie. It is not a local dish, but popular in the Amish area of Pennsylvania. Jeffrey Archer incorrectly named Geneva not Bern the capital of Switzerland. Any reader who knows the area will be annoyed and it negates the verisimilitude of your work. Hint: use the internet as a fact checker.

Watch your language. Regions and social groups have special language. Hoodsies was ice cream in a paper cup in New England. Tonic was soda pop. Try and find a native to make sure your language is fitting for the origin and time for your character.

Approaching people can be done by email, letter or telephone. Identifying yourself as a writer, helps. However, it does create some humorous situations. The police at Ferney-Voltaire looked at me strangely when I asked about buying a gun in France. After I produced a business card with my name, address and the words ecrivain/writer, they seem to decide I wasn’t a potential murderer.

Once we complete our research we are writing what we know.


Rosemary Bailey has written THE MAN WHO MARRIED A MOUNTAIN which also discusses her research as she journeys through history in the French Pyrenees.

“In those days few people knew what the Pyrenees looked like. For those at home visual impressions could only be gleaned from the descriptions or drawings of early travelers. We are so used to the familiarity of foreign landscapes gained from film, TV and photographs (and tourism itself), it is hard to imagine a time when there were none of these things. Even cheap lithographs came later, so the occasional original sketch or watercolour done on the spot was all there was to convey some sense of the majesty of the far mountains.”

‘In Pau library we met the archivist, Christine Juliat, petit and smart in a brown cord trouser suit and a silk scarf tied as only French women know how. She showed me a vast cache of old black and white photographs she had just received, of Americans in Pau at the turn of the nineteenth century: the parties, the hunts, the dogs. She also produced triumphantly the book I has been looking for everywhere, Joseph Duloum’s LES ANGLAIS DANS LES PYRENEES, a mine of information.”

Research a story about a city in a country where you have never been. Get a travel guide, a map, use the CIA information about the place, and a bi-lingual dictionary. Try and find someone from that country and interview them.

Some examples of books and websites for special research and it only scratches the surface.

A History Of Cant And Slang Dictionaries: 1785-1858 by Julie Coleman

War Slang: American Fighting Words and Phrases Since the Civil War

The slang dictionary;: Or, The vulgar words, street phrases, and "fast" expressions of high and low society. Many with their etymology and a few with their history traced by John Camden Hotten

http://www.fun4birthdays.com/year/index.html gives major events in different year although the focus is American although if you go several layers there are interesting small details like in Denmark on someone’s birthday a flag is flown outside the window.

http://www.yearbookhigh.com/history/global%20happenings.htm Global events from 1950.