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Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Writing what you don’t know – a suggestion

If you watch Hell's Kitchen, you know he can be scary when people don't know what they're doing - Wikipedia photo

If you watch Hell’s Kitchen, you know he can be scary when people don’t know what they’re doing – Wikipedia photo

Would you like to walk up to chef Gordon Ramsey and describe to him in very detailed terms what it’s like for a sous chef to to make a perfect cheese souffle in the busy kitchen of a five-star restaurant? Sure, you could read a dozen recipes first and even practice a bit in the kitchen.  But, unless you’ve worked as a sous chef, it might be difficult to get it right when you eyeball to eyeball with a man who’s done it hundreds of times.

Whether it’s souffles, police and ambulance procedures, attorneys in court, fire departments responding to a fire, or people surviving in the wilderness, writers often worry about how they can “get it right.”

When you don’t have a research team

I’m talking about the majority of writers, which means I’m leaving out famous writers who have or can hire researchers, or people who are famous enough to gain access to sources that won’t give the rest of us the time of day. I’m also ruling out authors who have the time, perseverance and resources for working on one novel for 15-20 years during which time the research can become a passionate avocation.

Minimize what you don’t know

You're NOT trying to replicate this - Wikipedia photo

You’re NOT trying to replicate this – Wikipedia photo

Cutting to the chase, my suggestion is that you minimize scenes that require a step-by-step description of the character doing something or observing something about which you have little on-the-scene knowledge. Do you really need your sous chef protagonist to perform a tricky cooking operation in front of your readers? Or, can you show bits and pieces of it as it occurs or mention it after the fact, creating the illusion that your protagonist knows what s/he’s doing?

If you’re lucky and put yourself out there to find resources, you can talk your way into a restaurant kitchen and watch what happens, and then maybe interview some of the workers after the restaurant closes for the day. The more you observe, the greater your chances are of creating the illusion in your novel that the readers have seen more than you’ve really shown them. And yet, you’ll never create the perfect chef’s handbook or an encyclopedia–that’s not your job anyhow.

A lot of writers I know try to do most of their research on the Internet. One danger here is credibility.  I prefer professional sites and books to Wikipedia and sites that are maintained by non-experts more as a hobby than as an outgrowth of their work.

Experts are great when you can find them, and when it comes down to it, a surprising number of people will answer telephone and e-mail queries from authors about the subject matter of a novel. Some will talk back and forth at length, while others really expect you to confine what you want to ask to a few narrowly defined questions.

And, for goodness sake, if the expert has written a definitive book about the subject, buy the book and read it rather than wasting his or her time asking questions that have already been answered and that can be easily found on Amazon.

Worrying about getting it totally wrong

And, you also don't have a television producer's resources. - Wikipedia pohoto.

And, you also don’t have a television producer’s resources. – Wikipedia photo.

What most of us want to avoid is getting it totally wrong. But just is dangerous, is the reliance upon only one source. What you might not be able to tell might be something readily apparent to people in the field when you choose one author or one site and treat that information as gospel without getting second and third opinions. People in the field will know if any particular source is credible and/or out of date and/or doing or saying something that’s out in left field.

Be careful of popular TV shows. Most hospital and police shows have an endless line of critics saying that such and such never happens in real life even though those shows have experts on hand as consultants. If you watch NCIS, for example, do you wonder (as I do) if NCIS agents can take over a local murder investigation by police simply because the victim is in the service? I don’t think so. If you watch BONES, do you notice that the FBI agent character is getting involved in cases outside normal FBI jurisdiction? Popular shows get away with a lot of “artistic license” that can quickly sink a debut novel.

Research thoroughly and then sketch in enough to make the boom seem realistic

In this one post, I can’t possibly cover all the ways authors learn enough about what they don’t know in order to write a novel that includes those subjects. To some extent, one has to work the way a good reporter, private detective or professional researcher would work and track down everything possible to get the details and the sense of what a particular job, industry, religion, or city is like.

My idea, then, is that whenever possible, consider sketching in the details of certain things rather than addressing them head on. Sometimes you can’t do that. When you can’t, you’ll spend more time researching the subject than writing the scene, and then if you know somebody in the field, ask them to read anything where your little bit of knowledge might lead you toward making a ghastly mistake.

Books from people who know really help as long as you don't copy them or stray past what you can learn from them.

Books from people who know really help as long as you don’t copy them or stray past what you can learn from them.

Most writers aren’t doctors, lawyers, policemen, chefs, truck drivers, or CEOs who know how to take their own 9-5 professions and turn them into stories that are accurate to a fault. We base our stories on people and the circumstances of their lives and then have to bring in the facts of their hobbies and careers a bit on the sly.

As a case in point, in a recent novella of mine, one of the characters was a deacon in a sanctified church. I read a lot about this, but still felt that while I could have the deacon talking to others about his church or about a funeral service, there was no way I could replicate a sermon or a funeral as a major scene in the book. So, my characters referred to such events after the fact or concentrated on other things if I showed them in attendance.

You can do this with a lot of professions where you don’t have the time or resources to portray moments with photographic accuracy. In fact, past a point, most readers don’t want your scenes to sound like they came out of a training manual.

We deal in stories and illusions, not textbooks

As always, we create our stories out of multiple sources, ideas, bits and pieces of conversation, and more ideas than we can possibly describe to a non-writer. That’s because our stories are, to some extent, smoke and mirrors in which the tale to be told and the lives of the main characters are more important than a photographic presentation of what real life would look like if if you had a 24/7 webcam. The facts are important and can’t me made up by saying, “this is fiction.” If the facts are obviously wrong, nobody will trust the parts of the book that are right.

That’s why writing what you don’t know is always a bit of a juggling act between what to say and what to imply. Our first duty is to be good storytellers, not to become a professional chef so we can write a chef story, not to then become a policeman so we can write a good crime story, and (in most cases) not to research a subject to twenty years so we can put more nuts and bolts in it than most readers even want to see.

The fact that the facts matter doesn’t mean you have to include all the facts, much less those you don’t have a clue about. We’re illusionists on stage, so to speak, not Gandalf and Harry Potter using real magic in front of an audience.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” (magical realism) and “Sarabande” (contemporary fantasy), both of which are available on Noon and Kindle and in paperback.



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2 thoughts on “Writing what you don’t know – a suggestion

  1. I wish it were mandatory that all journalism students would take a course that you could teach on just this subject! It might save the entire media from their self-imposed ridicule!

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