Write about the things you know.
I’ve heard and read that phrase so many times, and since I’m not writing a crime story or a fantasy novel, I planned to stick to it. I had that advice as my mantra, and stuck it onto the iMac screen written out on a orange post-it note. No, I’m lying, I didn’t actually stick it there because the glue was all dried up, but you get my point, right? Or not…?
Let me spell it out for you: I was going to write about the things I know because (and this is an important addition) I didn’t want to do any kind of research, not even small stuff. I’m a sloth camouflaged in a human body, and it would require too much effort. But more importantly, I didn’t want to be like Bambi on the ice. If anything required research it would imply that I didn’t know what I was writing about, and it would take me out on the (potentially) slippery surface of ignorance. I pictured myself sprawling all over the place because my readers would see through me and realize I don’t know anything at all, really. I’m just trying to write a story.
So I was determined to write about things I know. And I did, until my characters began to put obstacles in my way, making life difficult. You’d think that a product of your own imagination would have the courtesy to be fairly obedient and manageable, wouldn’t you? Nope. Somewhere along the way they develop their own quirks and crazy ideas. They turn into that bunny…what’s his name again? Thumper, that’s the one. I had to Google it, he’s called something completely different in Norwegian.
So here you have me, as careful Bambi, taking her first, cautious steps into the new and unfamiliar winter world (or weird and wonderful universe of writing), and then you’ve got that crazy, playful bunny that makes the ice look super cool and alluring.
So I was going to write about the things I know, or try to adjust things to settings I felt familiar with, and that’s where Alaska entered the scene.
I decided to make one of my American characters Alaskan. It felt like a good idea at the time. Because, …if you look at the map, Alaska is roughly as far north as where I’m from in Norway. I could tick off the midnight sun, the northern light, the fjords, the halibut, the cross-country skiing, moose hunting, wild blueberries, midsummer celebrations with bonfires on the beach, and freezing cold, dark winters. Alaska was perfect. And I had this wonderful childhood and teenage crush involving a beautiful, old plum tree owned by a grumpy old man, all planned out in detail. It was just one small hitch…
It was the geographer in me that kept nagging about this: In contrast to Norway Alaska doesn’t have a warm ocean current that passes along the coastline, so the average temperatures and the growth conditions are completely different. The writer in me was crying Tell me it isn’t so! But it is. Bugger. Doing a bit of online research and asking a couple of real Alaskans, confirmed my suspicion: It’s not a good idea to write about plum trees in Alaska.
I’m just relieved I found out beforehand. That would have been a nice Bambi stumble right there.
Another one of my characters managed to contract diabetes type 1 overnight. Like, WTF?! I told him, “Stop it, Nick, this isn’t funny. You were fine yesterday.” He kept waving that insulin pen in front of me until I had no choice, but to start reading up on blood glucose levels and different types of insulin. He seems to be doing okay now. I just give him a bit of coke when he’s getting cranky and starts sweating.
Where does this fit in with writing about what I know? Well, when the diabetes thing came up I thought I did know enough. I grew up with my diabetic aunt and have always spent lots of time with her. But when I decided to let a character have diabetes I realized I had to get a better understanding of the personal experience. I had only been a witness, observing my aunt. Sometimes, I think I know more than I actually do, and when I sit down to include it in my writing, I see all these glaring holes that need to be plugged with additional knowledge.
And I’m not even talking about epic historical novels based on real events, or to let an exotic location you’ve never been to, have a key role in the story. That takes research of a completely different scale. The sloth in me is cringing just thinking about it. I’m talking about the small, everyday life stuff. What makes us…us.
So why not just skip it? I could have made the Alaskan Norwegian, and pretend I didn’t see the insulin pen. Well, for me it’s that the ideas grow on me. My character is Alaskan. Come midnight sun insomnia or dark winter depressions, Stephen will remain Alaskan *Insert appropriate, stubborn stamping of feet and clenched fists to prove point*. Now it’s up to me to find an alternative to an old plum tree to write around, even if that means I’ve got to stumble around out there on the ice for a while.
And Nick’s diabetes fits him so perfectly because it’s a complete mismatch, if that makes any sense at all. It adds a layer of complexity to him, an additional challenge that he needs to work around. It adds depth, vulnerability and humanity to his character, as well as an additional dimension to his relationship with my main character. What it brings to him, is worth the risk of me sprawling on the ice. At least I hope so.
If we as writers were to remain on safe ground and not dare to step out on the ice now and then, our stories and characters will suffer. They’ll be watered out and lack depth and substance.
I know very little, and that means I find myself out there on the ice quite a lot. I’m sure a lot of writers are able to develop compelling characters without ever feeling that they’re on slippery ground. But as I’m meandering my way through my first, shitty draft, I’ve come to realize that I actually enjoy it. It’s a cool challenge to take the symptoms of hypoglycemia and add them to a character I know very well, and try to decide how it will likely affect Nick, based on what I know about him. He comes alive that way.
I was really hesitant in the beginning, but at the end of the day Thumper turns out to be a cool friend to hang out with. He might be blamed for putting me out there, all cross-legged and confused, but he’s also the one that eventually brings me back to safe ground an experience richer. My characters are better and more real because of him.
How do you research your stories? Do you see it as a necessary evil, or do you enjoy jumping head first and delve into an unknown topic?
Have you ever had stories or characters take the role of Thumper and unexpectedly found yourself out there on the ice?
Oh, and the clouded leopard…almost forgot about that one…
It’s a cat! So far I know it got four legs, weird spots and lives in Asia somewhere. Ask me in a few weeks time I’m sure I’ll be able to tell you lots more.
If you for some crazy reason feel like reading more of my ramblings, I can also be found here.