Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Writing What You Don't Know

About ten years ago, I created a series of teen books called ON THE ROAD. It was about a recent high school graduate named Miranda who takes a year off before college to travel across the country. I had envisioned a fifty book series with Miranda visiting every state in the union. I loved the premise and quickly found a publisher who loved it, too. The only problem—which I kept to myself—was that at the time I had never traveled west of the eastern seaboard.

Information wasn’t as widely available on the Internet as it is now, so I set about doing my research the old-fashioned way. I read many travel guides and clipped newspaper articles about popular destinations; I requested info from the chamber of commerce of several cities; I talked to as many people as I could about the places where they grew up.

Even still, the task felt overwhelming. There was too much room for error. What if my details were wrong? How could I possibly capture the feeling of a place without ever being there?

For a while, these two questions paralyzed me—until I reminded myself that I wasn’t writing a travel guide, I was writing fiction. Yes, I wanted to do justice to the places Miranda visited, but the real point of the story was her own self-discovery. It was more important to stay true to Miranda’s inner journey than to worry about documenting every nuance of the landscape. It was then that I learned the magic of the well-placed detail. If you confidently scatter a handful of researched details within your fiction, the reader will often believe that you are an authority on the particular subject.

For example, at one point in the series, I had Miranda travel to Cincinnati. I don’t know much about the city, but being a foodie, I know about their famous chili. So, I stuck her in a diner, which is easy enough to describe, and had her order a 5 way (spaghetti, chili, onions, beans, and piles of cheese) just like a native. The detail is specific to the region, interesting to people who have never been there, and nostalgic for those who have. Other small details to consider: the terrain, native trees and flowers, landmarks, popular phrases and customs, local businesses, climate, etc.

Or what if you’re writing about an industry you’re unfamiliar with? Don’t feel like you have to pull a Tom Clancy and know it inside and out (although there’s nothing wrong with that) before you can write about it. Research two or three aspects of the industry really well, place them strategically in the story and move on. You don’t have to inundate the reader with detail to be convincing. Just a sprinkling here and there will suffice.

I’ll admit that writing about what you don’t know does, at times, feel a bit fraudulent. Here’s why it’s not: the purpose of fiction is often to reveal universal truths, which often requires a writer to stretch beyond his realm of experience. Secondly, a reader brings her own experiences to the work. Give the reader a few good details to hang her hat on, and her imagination will do the rest.

When I turned in my final manuscript for ON THE ROAD, I remember being a bit nervous because I had sent Miranda to San Francisco. I wasn’t really sure I could write about such a famous city convincingly. When my editor called to discuss rewrites, she was very excited.

“I lived there for ten years, you know,” she said.

Oh, great, I thought. Busted.

"You nailed it.”

I had to laugh. I really didn’t do much at all—it was her experience of San Francisco that brought the story to life. But I still didn’t tell her that I’d never been there.


Gary said...

Appreciate your notes - especially on ghost writing - which originally led me to your site.

Have found that knowing a place really, really well such as the Adirondacks (where our series is set) can be cumbersome, get in the way. Maybe sometimes less knowledge is more when it comes to advancing the actual story.


Stephanie Doyon said...

I totally agree. Being too close your subject or setting can sometimes be detrimental. Usually distance can give you a little clarity and perspective.

When I was living in New York, all I wanted to write was a small town story. Now that I'm living in the country, I'm setting my next novel in the New York area. I guess I'm just wistful for wherever I'm not!