I recently went out to dinner with my husband and some friends of his that I hadn’t met yet, and got sucked into one of THOSE conversations again. I’ve mentioned in the past that I detest telling strangers that my profession is writing, because it usually leads to awkward conversations. Well, awkward for me, not them. Because unlike other professions, everyone has very strong opinions on the subject. You wouldn’t tell a firefighter how to do his job, but if you’re a writer? Fuggetaboutit.
The new friend in question began complaining about a show she’s been watching on television that features a novelist, and how ridiculous it is that this fictional writer is always out and about ‘doing research’ for his book, because ‘It doesn’t really happen that way.’ She informed me that ‘If you just write what you know’ then running around doing research isn’t necessary.
“Write what you know” is one of those catch phrases that certainly has some basis in truth, but was never meant to be an all encompassing rule of law in terms of writing. (example – space travel and most science fiction stories). Sure, sometimes we write about a topic near and dear to our hearts, and yes, it makes the flow easier. But every working writer knows that research isn’t just a cute thing to make writers do in movies in television in order to get them into zany situations. A person’s own life experience only goes so far. If all you did was ‘write what you know’, most would tap out their own life experiences in a very short time. Then it’s like….Oh crap, I finished my life, what the hell do I write about now??
Even if the main theme of your book involves something you’re comfortable and familiar with, there are going to be details peppered throughout the story regarding things you aren’t an expert at. So rather than wing it and risk getting it wrong, yeah, we do research. A LOT of research. It isn’t always some big, complicated thing like riding along with a SWAT team as they subdue a hostage situation. It’s the little things more often than not. What sort of shoes do nurses typically wear in the operating room? What are the common slang terms used by people in a particular region of the country? What are the particulars of a certain legal quagmire a character’s found themselves in? And so on. Often times we can find ourselves down a rabbit hole for days just doing research, and most times it takes up the bulk of the planning stage before even starting a book.
So yes, writers actually do spend a lot of time on research. It’s not a pretentious quirk to make ourselves sound more writerly. Because a good writer knows exactly how much they DON’T know. And this is key once you’ve exhausted all the ‘write what you know’ stuff. Otherwise every other book would be about a dirty, exhausted writer sitting around in stained pajamas eating peanut butter out of the jar…whilst doing research.
It would not surprise me if people try to dictate to firefighters about how to do their job. I know that as a veterinarian I get constantly frustrated by people second guessing me and telling me that I should do things some other way because their breeder friend (or Dr. Google) said so.