Monday, August 26, 2013

Write What You Don't Know, a Guest Post from Harvey Chute, author of Stone and Silt

There's an old pearl of wisdom that advises authors to "Write What You Know."

Now that I’ve completed my first novel, I would argue that the reverse is true: Write what you don't know. Or perhaps, write what you *want* to know. Why? Because in the act of writing, you'll gain an understanding of your subject matter in delightful and unexpected ways.

Like any act of creativity, writing is about discovery. You start with a plan of sorts. And as you progress you encounter new twists, new puzzles, and even new characters that find their way into your story. You learn as you go.

I based my first novel, a YA historical mystery, in the Fraser Canyon area of British Columbia. It's where I grew up, so I knew the geography and some of the history of that area. I felt on solid footing. I was indeed writing from a place of familiarity.

What I didn't expect was how much more I would learn in the telling of the story. It's a question of going from the general to the specific... because that's what a story demands.

An example? I knew that pioneering families in that area ate a lot of river salmon as part of their diet. But what type of plates did they use? (Tin, or ceramic... and not the flecked ceramic you find in camping stores these days.)

Utensils? Why, the two-tined fork, of course. And for carving meat, manufactured knives were common but some native families still used cutting tools hand-ground from jade, called adzes.

What about weaponry? Bullets or lead balls? Muzzle loaders? Did arms from the Civil War make their way up into the northern colonies?

How about people's names? In those times it was fashionable to name your child after members of the royal family. So the census records are full of Edwards, Alberts, Victorias, and Georges. And for the First Nations peoples, they commonly used their native names as well as the first and last names applied to them by the Anglican church.

How common was interracial marriage during those days? The census records offer surprising clues as to how often whites, natives, and Chinese people intermarried in those pioneer days.

Those tiny details do more than add credibility... they help to breathe life into a novel's characters and setting.

For me, getting to those details required research. I found source material contemporary to that era: historical records of the First Nation culture; government census records, with their fascinating hand-written margin notes; and newspaper articles from the larger towns in the area.

Then my research got more personal. My parents have lived in that area for over 50 years, and my mom was able to correct me on details about local flora and basket-making. A family friend who works in the Lytton Museum gave me wonderful stories about 19th Century life in the colony. And one of my First Nation friends from high school was generous with her time, patiently explaining to me the details of native healing, ceremonial costumes and dance, and the everyday activity of meal-time fish preparation.

Here are three things I learned about research during the writing of my novel:

1. Research is a two-edged adze. It can enrich your story, but it can be an awful time-sink as well, eating up many hours that might otherwise be spent writing. So there's a discipline where you have to say "enough," and get on with putting pen to paper.

2. The majority of what you learn in research won't make it into your story. At first I tried to put too much newfound information into my manuscript. Fortunately my wise content editor caught it, and rightly pointed out that it was breaking the pace of the story. I had to tell myself to resist the urge to show off, to make it all about "look how much I know." Nobody wants to read that!

3. And finally, take the "write what you know" mantra with a grain of salt. Instead, write what you want to know!

You can get your copy of Harvey's debut novel, Stone and Silt, from Amazon US (ebook or paper), Amazon UK (ebook or paper), or Barnes & Noble.

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Lyn Horner said...

Wise advice, Harvey. I often write about places I've never been, or have only briefly visited. You obviously enjoy research, and you're so right, it can be a time sink. But it's fun to learn about those things we want to know. Thanks for sharing interesting bits of your research.

Unknown said...

Agreed on all counts. What often surprises me is what I learn about myself along the way - or discover that I actually know something I hadn't given much thought to.

Unknown said...

Agreed on all counts. What often surprises me is what I learn about myself along the way - or discover that I actually know something I hadn't given much thought to.

kboards said...

You're welcome, Lyn, and thank you so much for your comment. Research is an enjoyable part of the novel-writing process... but sometimes it's *too* enjoyable!

kboards said...

Thanks, Unknown - I think it's true that some of the little factoids and knowledge that we take for granted can be downright exotic to people who may be from another region or country. Too often people don't write down the everyday details because they're seen as mundane, but to get a glimpse of that kind of detail from a past era is fascinating. Thank you for your comment.

kboards said...

I want to thank Big Al for inviting me to guest post today. I've followed his blog for a few years now, and it's a treat to be a part of it today!

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks for being here, Harvey. Although I rarely post, I find myself lurking a lot on your site.

For those who aren't aware, Harvey is the founder of KBoards, the forums with discussions about all things Kindle.

Vicki said...

"Instead, write what you want to know!"

Love that snippet of wisdom. :)

kboards said...

Thank you, Al! KBoards has been a fun adventure for me, and I learn a lot from the posts from both readers and authors. And, it's where I first learned about your site. Book review sites come and go, and yours is one of the ones that I can rely on to be their with good book recommendations and reviews. I know that must take a lot of time and care!

kboards said...

^ Thank you, Vicki! :)