Knowing What You are Pretending

Writing fiction is liberating. If you head off into the far corners of sci-fi and fantasy, anything is fair game. Want a mystery about post-mortem consciousness and communication? How about something that fuses pokemon with Roman legions? Or maybe you prefer leaving all the rules behind with the Infinite Improbability Drive?

You have to be careful though and realize that it isn’t an open license to take the first thing pulled out of your arse and call it “literature”. It has to be a cohesive vision that a reader can identify with on some level. Your magic needs limits and rules the reader can understand and anticipate. Restrictions that help drive the plot and keep from overpowering the characters and their decisions. Your technology either needs to be grounded in actual science, or a close enough approximation that your reader can “buy in” without rolling their eyes or calling bullshit.

Sure, you can write flat out absurdist prose and hope for critical acclaim. If you want to write books that sell however, you often have to do at least a little bit of research.

There is the oft heard and oft abused “write what you know” maxim. It is a great way to maintain consistency on a topic and still brand it with your own spin. Currently, I’m reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran. It’s a detective novel set in the post-deluvian New Orleans whose protagonist is a sort of Nancy Drew meets Hunter S. Thompson type of character. So far, two things have really pulled me into the story. One was this line:

The client already knows the solution to the mystery. But he doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t hire a detective to solve his mystery. He hires a detective to prove that his mystery can’t be solved.

As a former PI, this single line hooked me. It’s true. Insightful. Something I knew and experienced but was never able to put so eloquently. Gran is a lifelong fan of mystery novels, TV shows and true crime. Quite possibly, she has interviewed or worked with PIs as part of her writing process. Regardless how she came about that spark of truth, the key thing is – it shows. Consequently, if you try to write about something which you know nothing about, well,  it shows, but in a bad way.

Gran was also a native of New Orleans for several years. Throughout City of the Dead, New Orleans is painted with a perfect amount of familiarity and detail. There are no exhaustive descriptions of the French Quarter or bead draped, garish re-tellings of street parties. It is a New Orleans that the protagonist, Claire, and by extension, the author has an intimate connection to and this comes across effortlessly in the writing .

Of course, as a writer, there is something else in your arsenal for those times that you end up deep into a narrative that’s drawn you down to uncharted depths: research. You enjoy reading – you enjoy exploring – you enjoy discovery. Use that to your advantage. Sure, you can pick through the entrails of Google and see where the secrets lie. But as a writer, make the effort to experience those things you want to represent in your book.

At the moment, the protagonist of my novel is into baseball. Frankly, I really don’t like baseball. However, it is a tale about a kid who has a sort of tortured relationship with his father, so it felt right to have a classic “father son” type of activity which his father didn’t share.  At any rate, when a colleague mentioned free Ranger’s tickets – I jumped at the chance (still checking dates…). I’ve been watching a bit of Sportscenter on the side. I’ve been checking stats, reading up a bit on the history of my protags favorite team, the Giants. Honestly, I don’t have a master plan in place, but I’m hoping that through some kind of sympathy driven reverse osmosis, I’ll be able put that stuff back on the page. It is a very minor detail – it isn’t like I’m building a city around or that the novel hinges on his knowledge of baseball, but I want it to come across as a sincere pursuit.

What about you? What are some ways you approach writing about things which you are only pretending to know about?

4 thoughts on “Knowing What You are Pretending

  1. Annie Neugebauer

    Well, mostly I do the things you’ve talked about here, but I can give up one surprisingly obvious secret: blogs. Not writing blogs, but personal blogs by people who are experts in what you need to know about. In researching schizophrenia, for example, I came across a whole slew of personal online journals of people who suffer from various forms of schizophrenia (and family members of those who do). I still had to do tons of research about the scientific side of the disease, but the blogs offered a more personal, intimate insight into real life with it. It led me to some of those “ah-ha” revelations like the one you quote from Sara Gran. Seems obvious… but I’d never thought of it until this WIP.

    • curoi

      Great suggestion! Those first hand accounts must lead to some of the wonderful characterization and visceral writing you have in your novel. The internet is truly a blessing and a curse, but the anonymity of things allows you to hear sides of a story people would probably be very reluctant to share – and they do it in an essentially public forum. It’s like people watching…only more like “psyche” watching.

  2. The Notorious B.E.N.

    Faulkner said “A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.” – I think that with enough talent a writer could ride on only one of those and make it work.

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