Write what you know. That’s the well-worn dictum writers hear over and over and over. The meaning may vary as you make your way through the craft and business. For many new to writing that results in semi-autobiographical novels and coming of age books. Others take the knowledge they’ve obtained through work and life experience and bring it to bear upon the novel in ways that impact settings, characters, ideas and themes.
The flip side is when a writer must balance what they know against what they don’t know. Then they must heed the call of the writer’s mighty cry: Research! For fiction and nonfiction writers research often has a magical connotation. Like Aladdin’s famous cry of “Abracadabra,” the words “it’s for research” opens doors. People you don’t even know will open up and spill their lifelong secrets and share their most private and intimate adventures. And the writers, in turn, become sponges. They soak up the life experiences of others; they eavesdrop and crib dialogue shaping it to their own needs. They prowl libraries, newspaper morgues, and city streets in search of that one tidbit that will make their fictional and nonfictional worlds achieve the blessed state of verisimilitude. Creating a world on paper that is real in the reader’s mind is their one overarching goal.
What that means for the writer is that everything, and I mean everything, becomes fodder. So it’s been for me with Hurricane Ike. As so often happens in a writer’s life, synchronicity came into play. For the past several years I’ve been working on a crime novel. One of the novel’s major elements is a hurricane, of course. (I do live in Houston and the city is the setting.) As I watched Ike make his northern tick toward Houston, I had a growing realization that Ike was traveling the path of my fictional hurricane. (It’s not the first time real life has mirrored my writing but it always feels a tad bit freaky when it happens.) As the winds whipped outside my home last Friday, I grabbed one of my favorite tools, the Flip Video, and videoed the storm blustering past and the news media’s real-time tracking reports. For the next 36 hours I sat in front of the TV and videoed the storm and its impact on the city and surrounding area. When the hurricane had passed and the newspapers landed on driveways again, I gathered all the intel on Ike. (Hey, I love the media doing my research!) It continues today. I’ve videoed the mayor’s news conferences, images of boats thrust through homes, flattened coastal areas, community sharing, individual anecdotes–even the Marines in all their glory landing on Galveston. All fodder for my novel.
My own reactions are captured in emails to friends and forums I frequent. Subject lines are tagged for easy search. Will all this appear in my novel as it really happened? No. What I’m looking for is the sense of it all, the timelines, the emotions, and those incremental sensory items so necessary to recreating reality in fiction. For writers, real-time research becomes second nature. It’s definitely that way for me. Am I glad the storm came through? No. It’s a devastation no community should have to endure. But it happened. And I guess after having been a writer for so many years, I automatically heed the call of research the minute its siren voice is heard. How about you? Have you reached that point where daily life assumes the mantle of research and you find yourself chronicling events, dialogue, and emotions as they occur all in the name of research?