Mar 2, 2012

Writing what you *don't* know (yet)

By Leah Ashton

Many writers are told to "write what you know". This isn't actually meant to be taken literally, and really refers to tapping into your own experiences, observations and emotions to inform your writing - to give it authenticity. There are some great articles that explain this far better than I could, like this one.

But, often taking this advice literally is also successful - for example Tess Gerritsen writes medical thrillers - and is a doctor.

In my first book, Secrets & Speed Dating, my heroine, Sophie, lives in Perth (my home town) and has a job very similar to my day job. So I was definitely writing what I knew! However, the book did deal with infertility, but fortunately my uncle is a GP, and he was able to answer my medical questions.

In my second book, A Girl Less Ordinary (out in June!), my heroine, Ella, is an Image Consultant. I knew very little about this type of career, so needed to do a lot more research - some help from a friend (*waves at Nikki*) for the media aspects, but otherwise I read lots of articles online and watched many Youtube videos (think videos on colour analysis, business-appropriate shoes, personal branding etc). This book was set in Sydney, where I lived for a few years, so the setting didn't require much research - only a little bit for the Blue Mountains scenes, a location I've only visited a couple of times. So, definitely more research required than for my first book, but again - there was still a lot of writing what I knew (particularly related to the corporate aspects of the plot (boardrooms etc) and the setting).

Now - in the book I'm writing at the moment, my heroine, Ruby, works in film production, and the story takes place during the filming of a feature film in a tiny country town in the middle of New South Wales. I know nothing about film production, and not much more about tiny country towns. So this book has been a real learning curve! My sister works in film, and she has been amazingly helpful, and I'm also reading text books and researching online. But, to be honest, I underestimated how much I would need to know in order to give the story authenticity. It's been fun learning along the way - but also a lot of work! It's also really opened my eyes - that I *can* write about something I know nothing about - I just need to do the research. I know that sounds kind of obvious, but I guess in my first two books I'd still been hanging onto settings that I had some experience and knowledge in - and this time I'm not.

I feel like this whole new world has opened up for me!

So I was wondering, if you're a writer - what is the coolest thing you've researched for a story? And if you're a reader, is there a particularly cool job or setting you've really enjoyed reading about?


  1. My funnest research, Leah, was going on a dolphin watching cruise... on a 19.8 metre boat with double twin-screw engine --the trivia one remembers. :-)

    And I really enjoy reading about super efficient secretaries and vets. I think it's something to do with being able to think fast on their feet and make quick-fire decisions.

    Love the sound of your film research!

  2. Great post!

    Oh where to begin.... researching the urban raptors of New York City and watching their webcams... learning how cocaktoo smugglers get away with their very dodgy crimes... what emergency personnel do on rescue to keep a whale alive in the shallows...

    I think my favourite research challenge was 'A Kiss to Seal the Deal'. The heroine is a seal researcher interested in discovering what impact (if any) the local seal colonies have on the town's fishing industry. I used my friends PhD for background and got to grill her for hours about her work. For three years she sifted through seal vomit and poop in search of 'otoliths' - tiny, weeny ear bones belonging to the fish they ate. The otoliths told them on what species and in what volume the seals were feeding. Her team were responsible for proving to the town and district that the seals weren't eating the same fish as the fisherman were hunting. Hooray! Seals saved.

    But my favourite fun fact...? They had to sift through the vomit, too, because seals often regurgitated and they didn't want to miss any valuable otoliths. Why did they regurgitate? Because octopus beaks got stuck in their sphincters.

    Bwaaaaaa. I kid you not. There was NO WAY that wasn't going into the story :)

  3. Good question, Leah. I was a bit the same about writing books set in places I'd been to, but now I've set books in Connecticut, New Jersey and Charleston as well as the other books in places I've visited. I love researching the new places - I use photos, webcams, blogs, travel guides, etc. Almost feels like I've had a holiday by the end!

  4. Leah, my very fave thing - research! I could (ahem, and DO!) spend waaaaay too much time on it! But the thing is you just never know what gems the next page will bring!

    Nikki, what cool research! I'm riveted by the octopus beaks and the problems they cause!

    Can't think of anything that would be a fun fact from my medical researches right now but if I do I'll come back later and share it!

  5. Leah, I'm totally hearing you! I understand the 'write what you know', but it's so rewarding, and educational!, to write outside of your comfort zone.
    Writing my book for the Wolfe continuity, I had to research Formula 1, champtionship surfing, and the experiences of an amputee. *Lots* of research, but I think that book is one of my meatiest.

  6. Leah, great post. I frigured out the 'write what you know' idea one morning at 2am a few years back. I literally jolted out of bed and came up with an idea that wrote itself in seven weeks and became my first published book. I don't understand why, but I'd never had a heroine who was an equestrian, which makes no sense because horses are a huge part of my life and my second great love (hubby comes first). So, writing what I knew was easy - if only I'd thought about it years ago :) But researching new ideas can be life changing too. I recently finished a manuscript where the hero had survived a life threatening illness - and after speaking to a man, via a local support group, who'd survived a similiar illness, I was humbled by his strength and courage. Our books can certainly link us up with fascinating people and I'm so glad I had a chance to meet this gentleman. Fab post!

  7. Hi Leah :-)

    I've had a lot of fun researching various subjects for various books -- slums and slang and dances and cosmetics for the historicals, but also things like knife fighting and animals' eyesight (for shapeshifting) for the fantasies.

    I really love how Lois McMaster Bujold has so much fabulous science (or maybe made-up science?) in her Vorkosigan series, and also tactics and politics and so much other stuff. She's amazing!

    Your image consultant heroine sounds fun!

  8. Sorry to be so late with my replies, I've been away from the Internet (oh noes!) for a day and a half!

    Michelle - how cool! I'd love to do that, I really need to start figuring out cool stuff *I* want to do, then justify doing it for the purposes of research :)

    Nikki - you have so much amazing stuff in your books - I would say I love the info about the seal vomit, but that doesn't sound quite right! It's been great having someone to interogate about a topic (my lucky sister!), I reckon that will be my plan of attack for future books.

    Rachel - I so admire you setting a book somewhere you've never been! I don't think I'm brave enough to do that yet, but I'd love to.

    Sharon - Yes! Come back with your fascinating medical fact!

  9. Robyn - Oh, the amputee stuff sounds fascinating! Was the amputee your hero or heroine?

    Helen - I am determined to one day write a horsey heroine - I'm actually trying to squeeze a horse scene into my current book :)

    Emily - I am in awe of your historical research. I love, love historical romance, but could never write one, I would make so many mistakes! I'm finding it challenging enough to write a contemporary story in an unfamiliar setting, let alone a different century! :)