Embracing Ignorance: Digging Deeper for Better Results in Your Writing
We humans, collectively, don’t like to ever admit we are wrong or, heaven forbid, don’t know something. We’ll feign knowledge with sage nods and carefully cover the gap in our information base with clever banter or a quick shift in topic. That’s human nature for you. As writers, our job is to tell a truth. Not the truth, for wisdom lies within our fiction, but a truth. We should have some bit of something we want to convey. The truth of the matter is if we don’t know what we want to convey well enough than how is it possible for us to conduct any sort of informational transfer via the written word? It’s like writing code in peanut butter or, as we used to say in Computer 101 back in the Dark Ages, you’re headed for GIGO! [1. Garbage in. Garbage out.]
As creators and explorers of imagined worlds and make-believe vistas, we are given a lot of latitude in what our audience expects of us. We’re fictioneers, after all. If someone wants a treatise on how things really are, they can look to other, better sources, to get the true source material. Readers come to us, as creators, for our particular spin. How can you possibly know how to spin something you don’t have any true understanding of?
Here’s what you have to do. Here’s what separates the wheat from the chaff. You have to do your homework. It’s as simple as that. You motivate yourself to do the necessary research, so what you write rings of truth. Writing words is one thing. Writing words with some weight, some gravitas to them, well that’s something else entirely.
This requires admitting to yourself you have a lack of knowledge about a particular topic and address that absence accordingly. With the wealth of resources we have at our very fingertips, there is no reason to be lazy. If you can’t find information, you can certainly tap into your social media network to help you, either by knowing the information first-hand or by directing you to someone or someplace that does.
I’ve learned in my youth there is no such thing as a stupid question. Admittedly, as I grew up, I realized there are some pretty stupid questions, but the thrust of it is the same. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Even if they are stupid, you’re not going to find out some things if you simply nod your head and never ask. This came to the fore when I first started in the industry. I’ll admit I’ve never been all that knowledgeable about guns, but I have learned a lot about them over the years, especially during my work on Agents of Oblivion. Why? They are a very necessary part of spy fiction and if I didn’t wrap my head around them in some way, shape, or form, it would certainly not ring true in my work.
Here’s a couple of tips to get you started in your own quest for knowledge that I’ve shared at conventions over the years.
1. Go to source material. Want to write something like Iron Dynasty? Don’t rely upon L5R as the repository of the Mysteries of the East. I’ve heard time and again (and cringed) when people have said “they’ve played a lot of D&D, so understand medieval society and knew enough to write a setting based on their experiences”. Although Iron Dynasty is largely fantasy, I read a lot of non-fiction books on the Japanese culture to get a good handle of the real deal, before I altered it. Heck, I even had a great talk with a fellow who happened to be a blacksmith at Con on the Cob some years ago, and asked him about the viability of making kikai. This kind of stuff will inform your work. Even if you make up parts of it, there is a truth to your words. You apply your logic and imagination to refine the raw metal and shape it into a sword to your liking. Do you want a dull blade?
2. Get in. Get out. When you’re seeking information, it is easy to consider research as making progress on your project. And you are and you are not. Watching the Bond flicks, as fun as that may have been, was not putting words on paper for Agents of Oblivion. Reading about the South Carolina gun laws does inform Echo of Dead Leaves, but, again, does not largely further the project. I’ll be the first to admit I do a copious amount of research. Though only a fraction of it goes into the finished work, I find it helps get in the right mind space for a project. I’ve refined my process to have a particular goal in mind when I go information gathering and when I get the information I need, I might put a note or bookmark in the reference material or flag a website for future use, but I get out as fast as I can. There are words which need writing. Another side effect is if you gather too much information all at once, you’re likely to lose your focus and the momentum for the thread of the work which drove you to collect the data to begin with.
These two basic principles should serve you in good stead, whether you’re writing a paranormal romance or designing an RPG. Certainly, there are other tips and tricks, but I’d definitely place these on my short list.
Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!