It is often recommended that writers write what they know. Unfortunately, this has led to a plethora of novels written by angsty professors about how an angsty professor finds renewed spirit via an affair with a ripe coed.
Writing what one knows is also difficult when one has led a basically boring life. Not everyone is Steve Irwin or Jack Ryan or Jacques Cousteau, after all. I for one have never climbed a mountain, thwarted a spy, or been a spy for that matter. Must I restrict my writing to the everyday adventures of a former English major who has two cats and enjoys crossword puzzles? What a snooze!
There are a few geniuses who’ve managed it. Most notable is Martin Cruz Smith with Gorky Park. Without having been to Russia, this superstar writer made us all believe in his snow-covered, KGB-infused vision.
For him, and for the rest of us, there’s research.
Obviously, a nonfiction writer has to rely on research – interviews with the biography subject, police files on Jack the Ripper, the diaries of Sir Ernest Shackleton. This does not, however, preclude adding a personal touch to the facts. Take Mary Roach’s work, for example. She may never have been an employee of NASA or gone to Mars herself, but her Packing for Mars is a masterpiece of factual research combined with first-person observation and idiosyncratic footnotes. For nonfiction writers, exploring other people’s lives is part and parcel of the genre. Even Rabid, a book about rabies, provides a glimpse into the lives of researchers, doctors, and victims.
For the fiction writer, research is a necessary evil as well. If you write a novel set in Victorian times, you can make it convincing only if you know what people then ate, how they dressed, what political upheavals affected their lives, and even how they used the English language. Even contemporary fiction requires research: What were the laws on the statute of limitations like in Ohio in the 2000s? What are the procedures involving releasing a person from prison? What does a meth lab smell like? These details may not add to your plot, but they can make or break the verisimilitude.
And of course the rule about writing what you know is right out the window with science fiction. You can research what is postulated about faster-than-light travel or colonies on Mars, but at some point you’re going to have to make that leap and write about a creature, a planet, a culture, a history that never existed.
It’s tricky when it comes to writing fiction about people. You can’t fashion every character after yourself (even if there’s a little piece of you in every character). And unless you want to be sued, you can’t write a villain as some specific person from your life, especially if they’re easily recognizable. Better to give that person a hook hand or a lisp, or make him over seven feet tall.
In my fiction writing, I give my characters small pieces of my life. I let my protagonist live in an apartment I once had and can describe in great detail. Another character gets a friend’s kitchen with the odd wallpaper border of ducks.
Then I do mashups for other characters. One gets the hairstyle of one friend, the hobbies of another, and the sexuality of a third. One has the appearance of someone I know and the lifestyle of a different person. Mashups keep me detail-oriented without borrowing too much from any one person. These imaginary amalgams allow me to visualize the characters clearly and not have to keep reminding myself whether the bad guy is tall and skinny or short and dumpy. I know how my model for his body moves, so I know how he moves too.
Until I can figure out a way to write an autobiographical novel about a middle-aged woman who hasn’t hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and hasn’t gone through astronaut training, I’ll keep doing my research and my mashups.