Friday, May 18, 2012

Why Writing About What You Know Doesn't Work

Tomorrow I’m making a flying trip back home to do research in Western Kansas. Getting ready is a chore considering all the god-awful paraphernalia that we writers seem to regard as essential.

Nearly all the writing manuals urge beginners to write about what they know. It doesn’t work.

Even if you are writing about a life you think you are familiar with, it’s amazing how much research is involved in even a contemporary novel.

My upcoming book, Hidden Heritage, begins in a feedyard. My husband and I were involved in cattle trucking all our married lives. But I find there are a ton of essential details I never paid attention to.

Hoxie Kansas has an enormous feedyard and the owner, Scott Foote is going to show me around and answer a myriad of questions. He’s very generous and extremely knowledgeable. He has a bachelor degree in Agriculture Economics and masters in Economics.

 If we all really wrote about what we know, there would be no historical novels, no Harry Potter—very few novels indeed. So tomorrow I will ask about cattle shrinkage, the treatment of empty pens, computer systems for keeping track, vet questions--you name it.

Nevertheless, details are such an important part of settings, that I stick to Kansas. I know a lot about that state and about the whole agriculture industry. For sheer drama, nothing can equal tensions experienced within farm families. Willa Cather proved that with Oh Pioneers! Passing down the farm is still one of the most loaded situations I know.

One of the greatest authors of manuals for writers, John Gardner, said we know all we need to know about human emotion by the time we are four.

It's true. Call back your childhood for feelings, and research the rest.


Susan Russo Anderson said...

Thanks, Charlotte, for this wonderful post—the last line is truly amazing. Susan

aaron said...

The saying that I take to heart is write what you WANT to know...I find it so much more inspiring and hopeful! Of course I live a boring life!!:) thanks for a great post!!

Irene Bennett Brown said...

Charlotte, not only do I agree a hundred percent with this post, I can hardly wait for your next book, Hidden Heritage!Yippee!!

Charlotte Hinger said...

Susan, I was thrilled to learn you found the Gardner comment that helpful. I did too. I wanted to respond to your comment at once, but I HATE trying to do this from an iphone. So I waited until I was back in CO


Charlotte Hinger said...

Aaron, another important piece of advice I've found true is try to write what you like to read. How true! We are just naturally steeped in the construction techniques of the genre we love the most.

Yes, I used the word "genre" Gardner also said all writing is a specific genre, even literary. He argued that all music is genre. You've composed an opera, a folk dance, a ballad, ect. I find this an excellent approach to think about writing.

If you want to write a "literary" novel--better man up to the required excellence needed for developing memorable characters, themes that are universal and important, and an equisite and joyful approach to learning the uses of language.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Irene, thanks. Can't tell you how many amazing things I learned at the Hoxie Feedyard. Next post will be more about this trip.

aaron said...

I agree Charlotte! "Genre" is generally used as a pejorative term imposed by academics to simplify and sort these books from capital-L Literature, which is really disheartening...I prefer to decide whether a book is well-written or badly-written, per Oscar Wilde's dictum in Dorian Gray. I read as promiscuously and as voraciously as my time allows...across continents, languages, centuries, and, yes, genres. But I believe that no matter what the specifics of the book are, there must be memorable characters and a joyful (or at least interesting or unique) approach to language, and, it seems to me that "themes" are going to be there in some form no matter what, but they tend to be, again, academic tropes imposed for the sake of criticism rather than necessary ( or even tangible) aspects of a reader's enjoyment.

Basically, I follow my instincts as to whether a book seems like it might be interesting to me, and then read a few pages to see whether the story captures my attention enough for me to read forward from that point. Rarely, to call back to some earlier posts, do i focus on the covers though! All of the various imposed critical structures and analyses are fine and possibly even helpful, but my criterion is essentially:is this a good book or a bad one? And even this elemental question will change from reader to reader, as it should. There is such a thing as bad Literature just as there is great Genre work being done...that's why it us integral that we all read as much as find as much inspiration as possible.

Thanks again for your post...I truly love the thought-provoking posts that force us to try and figure ourselves out, or at least find a way to put our views into print! And, I definitely look forward to reading more of your work!! I've never been to Kansas and I could use the specificity of your viewpoint!! Thanks again!

Charlotte Hinger said...

Aaron, I was interested in your reading a few pages practice. I get a lot of free books--given at conferences, for instance. I used to feel obligated to read anything to the bitter end. Now I've started a 20 pages stack. If I really don't want to read it after that (even if it's well-written), off to the Friends of the Library book sale.

aaron said...

I have to admit that it saddens me to have to work to pare down the potential list of next great reads, but even with my above-average reading rate and having no tv, I have a TBR mountain precariously built around my home and it never, ever gets smaller. There are so many more books to read, and sadly, life is too short. I don't feel obligated to read everything but once I start I do try to make it to the end. It doesn't always happen, I can assure you! But I love finding out the names of authors who might be of interest and I have noted down all of the names of the fine folks on this blog as well so ideally I'll be able to comment from a more educated standpoint in the near future!