How to Write What You Don’t Know
Amy Gustine on the Deep Research Behind Good Fiction
One day I decided to stop letting fear prevent me from trying to write certain stories, specifically the fear of not knowing things. I didn’t disavow my penchant for realism, or deny the importance of accuracy. Instead, I resolved to find out what I could achieve with research. It began as a dare to myself, and also a kind of surrender to life’s limitations. I can’t always afford the time or money to do on-site research and there are places I wanted to go in my stories—Gaza, 19th-century Poland—that no amount of either would take me to.
I took up the task of researching from afar in a spirit of experimentation and learned that it was like most undertakings—you have to pick two: cheap, good, or fast. You can’t have all three. I always choose good and cheap, which means I’m not fast. Ninety-five percent or more of what I learn doesn’t make it into the story, but because I enjoy learning, and I suspect that everything is tied together, this doesn’t trouble me. It shouldn’t trouble you either, unless you’re in a hurry, and then you better pick a different profession.
To write what you don’t know, try these strategies:
Get organized before you start
There are a lot of ways to organize information, but you need to pick one and stick with it throughout your project. It can be a big challenge. Software programs can help. I like Scrivener. It’s inexpensive, powerful, well supported by its makers, and specifically designed for book writers. It plays well with MS Word and other formats (rtf, txt) so you aren’t “trapped” in their environment. If this isn’t your thing, then come up with an alternative, but keep in mind that the more research you do, the more you need some way to organize the material so you can find it and use it.
If you are researching Pakistan, you can plug “Pakistan” into Amazon and get a list of several books, but mainstream books are often written at the macro level of political and cultural features, and fiction writers often need a peak at the micro level: real people, living real lives.
One overlooked source is the work of sociologists. These studies of actual people often prove more relevant to the fiction writer, but they are usually published by small university and independent presses, so go beyond libraries and bookstores with a string of online search terms that narrow your interest. For example the combination of “women” “Pakistan” “living” “conditions” and “middle-class” turns up a paper that cites an article in Contributions to Indian Sociology. This type of thing won’t be at your local library but it might be at a university library and you can get it through inter-library loan if you work at a university or have a friend who does. Still, you’ll often have to buy these more specialized, academic works. (Remember, I said “cheap”, not “free” research.) Never shy away from contacting publishers and writers directly. You may find these items available the old fashioned way (you mail a check, they send the book) or the new-fangled way (PDF).
Look at and listen to local media. Many other countries publish news in English, such as Pakistan’s Dawn.
Read fiction by people with a relevant religion, ethnicity, or experience. You aren’t going to plagiarize (of course!), but if you read a novel by a Serbian man set in a Serbian town, you may learn facts you can use fairly, without copyright infringement. It’s usually a good idea to double-check these things with targeted research.
Consider media such as documentaries and music albums. When researching the U.S. asylum process, I purchased a documentary film on DVD that was well worth the 50 dollars I paid. I couldn’t find that level of specific, personal information anywhere else.
Research the research
Before you spend time or money on source material, research the author and the work on the Internet. This is equally true of readily available and obscure sources. Look for reviews and abstracts of the work and read whatever you can about the author, including their own Facebook, Twitter, or website. Determine ahead of time if the author is a well-credentialed person, what the book or article discusses and if the author has a perspective (liberal, conservative, religious, etc.) that will be useful to you. The more money you are going to spend, the more research you should do.
Look in the background
When I was researching Pakistan I signed up for the New York Times’ service in which I received an email with a link to any story that mentioned Pakistan. I read all of them for the next five years. They were mostly about political events, however by paying attention to the incidental details of culture and setting, and listening carefully to the quotes of everyday people interviewed, I learned a lot about the country that was not the focus of the article and these things were often clues I followed up that led to other rooms of knowledge.
When you want to know something like whether there are paved roads in Uzbekistan’s small villages or what the texture of a palm tree’s trunk is like, include image searches, Google Earth, YouTube and other graphic sources in your repertoire. Examine your results carefully, freeze-framed and magnified when possible. You’ll have a more direct experience and learn things books and articles never mention. When I wanted to know how badly damaged Khan Younis had been by bombings, I searched images of the town rather than look for articles that would specify the attacks it had suffered. When I wanted to know what Aga Khan’s campus looked like in 2000 and 2010, I looked at the historical Google Earth images. They told me that in the years between my character’s visits, new roads and parking lots had been built, trees had been planted, sightlines changed. Be sure to note the date of any images and videos you find so you don’t introduce unintentional anachronisms. This goes for the publication date of other media as well.
Make your own luck
I was researching Pakistan for a novel when I heard that an organization in my city was bringing exchange students to the area. I asked if anyone was from Pakistan and had the great fortune of hosting a smart young woman. Now I have a friend and direct source in Karachi. Want to know about gardening for your character the horticulturist? Google search for garden clubs in your area and contact them. People love to talk about their professions and passions. This type of research is free, but it’s also fun and yields unexpected treasures.
Personal blogs, online support groups, organizations’ websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and PDF’s of conference materials posted online aren’t necessarily written to provide the researcher with information, and they may not always serve well for academic sourcing, but for fiction writers they are a goldmine. Be sure to double-check facts if they are critical, especially if they might be controversial.
Bend the work to the life
I am interested in ethical dilemmas presented by particular types of jobs, but instead of thinking about the job first, I’ve been thinking about whom I know, the jobs they do and the experiences they’ve had. My father is a criminal defense attorney. My mother used to run a business managing rental property. My sister is a therapist. My husband is a doctor. My brother-in-law manages Medicaid-recipient cases. I have friends who are teachers, speech therapists, wild life biologists, who work at homeless shelters and manage financial affairs for mentally ill people. We all have rich networks like this. Start asking questions even before you know what you are interested in. People love to talk and they’ll tell you things you could not possibly have imagined.
You can also work backwards when it comes to setting. I wanted to write a story set at a U.S. Asylum Office, so I chose Chicago because it’s the closest location to me and I was going there for a weekend anyway. When I wanted to send my characters on a romantic vacation, I chose Puerto Rico and took the couple on a moonlight kayak trip in a bioluminescent bay because I had done the same thing a few years earlier and retained detailed notes on the trip.
Ask strangers for help, even if they live half a world away
When I was in Chicago, I walked down to the building that holds the Asylum Office and discovered that what I’d seen on Google images (a huge American flag above the front lobby’s desk) was actually an immense screen. It must have been projecting an image of the flag the day Google drove by. This is a good reminder to verify online research whenever possible. If I hadn’t been going to Chicago, I could have asked a friend who lives there to take pictures of the building’s lobby, but don’t restrict yourself to friends. When I wanted to know which floor the Asylum Office was on, I called the building’s front desk and asked. Similarly, when I was trying to figure out if a woman would be allowed to enter a particular mosque in Karachi, I contacted a local touring company and a guide responded via email within a day. This strategy also comes in handy when you read a book, such as one of the sociological studies mentioned earlier, and have follow up questions. Track down the author’s contact information through her publisher, social media sites, or public records. You might be surprised how easy it is to reach someone in India or Hungary. We English speakers are lucky: much of the rest of the world bothers to learn our language.
Mining vs. prospecting: don’t get lost out there
Sometimes you know the question you want the answer to (I need to know the difference between furnaces and boilers) and sometimes you have a general knowledge gap (I don’t know much about the history of Sweden or its culture but I want to set my short story there) and sometimes you have something in between (I need to develop my character more and I’m wondering what are common hobbies or interests for a middle-class Swiss man living in the heart of Geneva. I might use a hobby to develop his character.)
The first type of question leads to what I call “mining,” targeted research to locate something you know exists. The second type is “prospecting,” or reading, listening and looking at things to learn about a culture/place/era/job, etc. without knowing quite what you’ll do with it.
Identify which type of research you are doing and make sure that you don’t get derailed. When you’re mining, find what you need and go back to work. If it’s a minor detail, even leave a gap in your piece and look it up later to avoid the distraction.
When you’re prospecting, you’re not sure what you’ll find, or where you’ll find it. You’re looking for inspiration and for whatever gifts the universe might give you. This type of research takes a lot of time. Be patient and open. With persistence and ingenuity, you can learn almost anything cheap and well. It won’t be fast, but I warned you: art never is.
Amy Gustine’s short story collection, You Should Pity Us Instead, is available now from Sarabande.