Wait…? What? I know a tonne about vacuuming, washing laundry and how to botch a family dinner. But I don’t want to write about it… washing skids out of pants just doesn’t do it for me.
On its own— like a meme created by some literary fascist, in his/her evil, ivory tower— write what you know is absolute tosh. It’s out of context. Sure, I might not know what’s going on in my husband’s head— like when I ask him to take the rubbish out and he responds by scratching his left testicle and staring at me with a vacant expression— but, I can learn what makes a man’s mind tick. And then, I can write about it.
Really ‘write what you know’ should be ‘know your subject matter’. Okay, that doesn’t sound as snazzy, but it’s far more accurate. If there’s a subject you want to include in your literary baby and you haven’t got the faintest clue on where to begin… then start off by learning about it.
Learning your subject before you embark on writing should give you two important advantages:
1) It sounds simple, but it offers you an understanding and knowledge. It saves time and stress if you’re already well-rehearsed on the subject matter. So now, when I want my husband to take the rubbish out, I’ve learnt to pre-empt his response by giving him a quick kiss, handing him the black bag and pointing him toward the door. Knowledge is power in everyday life too, you know.
2) You will develop a passion for the subject. And if you have a passion for the subject, your readers will feel those stomach-flipping moments too. But what if you don’t develop a passion for the subject? What if you find yourself nodding off, only to wake in the middle of the night with your head stuck to your keyboard in a pool of your own dribble? Well, then, you probably shouldn’t be writing about it. Drop it. Find something else that keeps you awake at night and write about that instead.
There are a tonne of resources available to you… as good as it is, Google isn’t the only one!
1) Books. It goes without saying that books are, by far (in my humble opinion), the best kind of well-researched resources available— they take time and thought to put together. And if they’re non-fiction? Then, the author is likely to be a subject matter expert. But one thing many people forget is where you can find them… for free. And no, I’m not talking about KU. I’m talking about libraries. How do I know that libraries are underused by writers nowadays? Because I work at one. Seriously, people, they are an amazing resource. And I promise you, if you walk into a library and tell the librarian you’re a writer who needs to research something, they will be happy to help. Murder, bigamy, smelly farts… no subject is too bizarre! We don’t judge. We get it. We understand. We love authors and their brilliant books. It’s our calling… like priesthood. Visiting your local library also relates to number 4 on my list.
2) Podcasts and Audiobooks. I’m an avid fan of both podcasts and audiobooks. If you’re like me: working, parenting, trying to write and not go insane with the lack of hours in the day… then they are a great source of material. You can listen while you drive, walk, do housework. Oh, and did I mention that libraries stock audiobooks too? Just saying…
3) TV Shows and Films. Want to know how people talk? Move? And behave in situations you wouldn’t normally be witness too? Then watch, watch, watch, people. Whoever said TV was bad for you clearly wasn’t referencing writers. Make notes, see what works, what doesn’t work and question the reasons why they shine or flunk (you should watch The Room… it’s brilliantly bad. So much so, I love it). Just remember: staying up for two days straight to have a marathon session probably isn’t the greatest way to get the most out of your research. Pace yourself, my popcorn-munching-people.
4) People Watching. Open your eyes and ears when you’re out. We spend too much time, hunched over, wired up to our smartphones or disappearing into our own heads. I get it, it’s where I like to be too. But watching people is the nugget of all nuggets for understanding how they behave socially. And it gets you out there, in the real world. Connects you with others. Just don’t do what I did and get so lost in thought you get accused of being a weird stalker.
5) Music. Want to know how it feels (like deep, Mariana trench, emotional kind of feels) to be a revolutionary pawn in a world that’s falling apart? Listen to a song about it. It doesn’t matter whether the lyrics are an exact reflection of the subject you’re trying to create, the likelihood is that the tonality and timbre of the song/piece will invoke inbuilt feelings that you can draw on. I have playlists for every character, scene and theme. Let your imagination do the rest.
And finally, if the subject you need to know about is too bizarre and obscure to find any tangible resources? Well, there’ll probably be a YouTube video on it.
But wait, hold those galloping horses. What if the subject belongs in the realms of fantasy? What if it doesn’t even exist yet?
Okay, you want to know what it would feel like to be trapped on an island inhabited by trolls with a penchant for gambling? Break it down. Find accounts from people who’ve been trapped on deserted islands. Read about the psychology of gambling addiction. Listen to stories on trolls… mix it all up with a splash of crazy and then make those little scruffy haired creatures your own. You’re a writer, do what you do best and get that awesome imagination greased up and start connecting the reality and matrix dots.
In summary, this is a basic overview of how to research and learn about subjects you want to write about. Think outside that six-walled box and get out there. There are lots more resources than listed here; if anyone has any other suggestions, I would love to hear about them- feel free to share your own methods in the comments section. In the meantime, peace and love to you all.