Writing, Reading, and Smiling . . . It's Contagious.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

"Writing What You Want to Know"

"Write What You Know"

How many times do we hear this slogan from teachers, writers, and peers? Though this adage is overused, it holds merit.

On the other hand, writing what you know does NOT mean you have to write about the autumn leaves in your backyard. It DOES mean that if you want to write about something OTHER than falling leaves, you have to research.

I suffered the same dilemma when writing my new book, Dead Bird in the Weeds. In the beginning, I was hesitant to start this project because "write what you know" was holding me back. At the time, I did not know that attaining the qualifications to write this book was within my reach.

"Writing What You Want to Know"

During my last project, my focus was on the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. Besides having to write about foreign places, people, and events, I was also catapulted into a different time period. As these obstacles were hurled at me, I took a deep breath and followed these steps to success:

  1. OBTAIN PRIMARY SOURCES: Primary sources are works written by people who have experienced events firsthand.

  • Though beneficial and necessary, secondary sources do NOT take the place of primary sources. While researching the 1798 rebellion in Ireland, I did not rely solely upon secondary information. I wanted to know what actual people of that time felt, thought, and did during the rebellion, so I read firsthand accounts.

  • If you have trouble finding primary sources for your subject, look in the “Works Cited” section in the back of a secondary source. A bibliography of all the primary sources used will be there.

    • How does one obtain primary sources?

      • Besides a trip to the library, which may or may not have primary sources (most likely NOT if you need dated historical material), search the Internet. The Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg are great repositories for such works.

  1. READ SECONDARY SOURCES: Secondary sources are works written by people reporting on events that happen to others.

  • While primary sources are key to understanding your subject, don’t neglect secondary sources. They gather a great deal of information into a condensed work that gives an accurate understanding/time line of the subject/event.

  • I also live by the “three source rule.” If I find the exact same information stated in three legitimate sources, I feel confident of its validity. Also, be sure to cite any references you use.

  1. CONDUCT INTERVIEWS: These provide either primary or secondary information.

  • Interviewing someone who has experienced your subject or is an authority on your subject provides unique information and quotes.

  1. REQUEST FREE INFORMATION: Many organizations and tourist companies provide free information on request.

  • Also, many people associated with organizations are usually more than willing to help out with information their institute can provide.

    • Keep in mind that you may also be ignored or treated rudely. I have been the recipient of both tactics. The best response is to not reply and move on.

  1. BECOME AN EXPERT: Experience your subject directly.

  • In order to write effectively and with authority, become actively involved in your subject.

    • If possible, visit the location of your subject. If you cannot afford travel fare, the Internet provides a plethora of information on practically every location in the world. Photos, videos, and articles from other travelers are indispensable.

    • Wear your characters’ shoes.

      • In my last project, my main character was thrown into a period jail/dungeon. In order to recapture the character’s emotions, I spent the entire day in a dark closet. I kept a log of my emotions and reactions, and after several hours of darkness, my mind recreated the feeling of being trapped and alone. While this is a bit extreme, you may find other methods of exploring situations. Please remember safety!

Turning “what you want to know” into “what you know” requires time, research, and patience. By investing in each, you can write effective, authoritative works.



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As always, I love to hear from you. If you’re in the cyber-neigbourhood, drop me a line. In the meantime, keep writing, reading, and smiling. It’s contagious.


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