Never Write What You Know?
“The first rule of writing, Mr. Tupman, is never write what you know.” Jo said this on Little Women—the movie anyway. I haven’t read the book in ages. It’s always been my favourite line. Later in the story, Jo is encouraged to write from life, but I like her enthusiasm for the adventuresome stories she wrote.
I’ve been giving this some thought recently because I hadn’t decided whether it’s more advisable to write from life or to never write what you know. If I only wrote what I know, my novels would all be about librarians who write and have four kids (this is my life). Eventually, that would be boring. I might rather never write what I know. That’s why research is so valuable for writers… only sometimes it looks a little strange. So I’ve compiled a list of things I’ve recently looked up for my novels.
All things wedding: Wedding music—I listened to a lot of old classics and mushy love songs… for research. Wedding flowers. Expensive wedding flowers. Dress styles. Tea length dresses—I promise I wasn’t shopping! Different diamond cuts. Expensive engagement rings—admittedly, I spent a little too long on this one.
All things movies: How movies are made. What does “on location” mean? What a cinematographer does. How movies are cast. Dwayne Johnson movies—this one didn’t even end up in my WIP. Nor is my book about Dwayne Johnson.
I know these don’t seem odd. I wrote about weddings and needed to know stuff. I have a character who’s a cinematographer so I needed to know stuff. Engagement rings are fun to look at. Not odd at all.
My favourite “weird” research is more about minute details. For example, I once googled “is poshly a word?” Turns out, it is. I searched for meaning of “the pick of the crop.” I look up various expressions to make sure I’m using them correctly. Shades of blue. Or green. Or pink. Basically, I’ve looked at a lot of colours. “Blazer with 3-quarter length sleeves for men” is one of my favourite extremely specific searches. I had to make sure such a piece of clothing exists before dressing my MC in it! Not only is it a thing, but it’s a good look for my MC. Also, “can crows have white spots?” This one was specific to my current project—my next release. Stay tuned for more on that!
And of course, there are my common searches. This includes baby names from whatever year my character was born; and surnames in Canada. That’s about it. Basically, baby name websites have named all my characters.
Then there are my thesaurus searches, for which I like use thesaurus.com. I consider this research because we writers are wordsmiths. So when we look up words to find synonyms, we’re researching the best word for the meaning of the sentence.
So there you have it. I’ve spent countless hours looking at Google images of random stuff; different colour shades; reading the history behind various expressions; and finding out about things that sometimes end up having very little impact on my novel. I’ve allowed baby name websites to choose my characters’ names. I’ve explored the thesaurus for exactly the right words.
And after compiling this list, I’d say writers tip no.1: go with Jo’s advice and never write what you know. But definitely do your research!