Thursday, February 18, 2010

Details Matter

“Write what you know.” I’m sure each of you has heard this phrase at some point in your life. Of course, you might say that if we all wrote what we knew, that could be rather boring. Part of the great fun of writing is leaving the realm of reality behind to explore what you have never known but have always wished you did.

That’s all well and good, but make sure to do your research first because the details matter.

I cannot tell you how many times I have read a partial or full manuscript only to find that some of the finer details don’t add up. If your character hails from Lisbon, why is she speaking in Spanish instead of Portuguese? If her family is so poor that they can hardly provide food and shelter, why is she carrying around an iPod? If the American government has a strong presence in her small town, how is she getting married at age fourteen in this day and age?

When the details don’t fit with the story or the characters, they stick out—and not in a good way. They show sloppiness and a lack of research, and as they add up, the story becomes much less believable and, in turn, less appealing. Then it becomes much more likely that I will not recommend requesting a full manuscript or representing a story.

Perhaps it would be best to return to the strategies of “Creative Writing 101” and create a character web, writing up every possible detail involving your character, from her ancestry to a list of her past relationships—even if you never mention them in the story. If you’re writing about a time or place you’re unfamiliar with, it also wouldn’t be a bad idea to pay the library a visit in order to research and learn as much as you can about what you want to write. (However, I will say that I wouldn’t recommend movies, which are often quite fictionalized.) It might seem tedious in the short term, but in the long run, it will make your story that much stronger, more believable, and more likely to be published.

When writing, it’s fine not to write about what you know. You just need to remember to ask yourself, even when writing fiction, “Do all the details make sense together? Is this believable?”

Unless, of course, you’re writing a story that takes place in a fantastical alternate universe, in which case, suspension of belief is acceptable—even encouraged.



Kris Spisak said...

This advice "Write what you know," bothered me for years. I don't feel like I've had an intriguing enough life, full of drama and mystery worth putting on the page; but, about a year ago, I had a breakthrough.

Writing places you know, or subject matter you have expertise in, is not actually limiting at all. It's a matter of weaving together knowledge, research, and imagination like licorice that really brings out the gold in writing. At least, that's how it has worked for me.

Thanks for the blogs. I'm enjoying following!

-Kris (

Krista Van Dolzer said...

So true, Jenn. And even when writing fantasy or sci-fi, it's the details that really shore up your world-building, that bring your (imaginary) world to life. You can say so much more about your setting by mentioning someone's "Make Love, Not Nuclear Waste" T-shirt than by rambling on about the ills of post-apocalyptic nuclear energy for a page and a half.

Naomi said...

Kris, I think that's a great break-down of write what you know--weaving what you do know (facts and/or experience) together with research & imagination. Sounds like a great combination.