One of the cardinal rules of writing is to “write what you know.” A simple enough suggestion, but seemingly so limited it’s all but useless. How can you only write about what you know? Can you write crime fiction without being a criminal or a cop? Can you write a legal thriller without being a lawyer?
Stephen King, in his classic work On Writing, clarifies a bit:
“When you step away from the ‘write what you know’ rule, research becomes inevitable, and it can add a lot to your story. Just don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog; remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first.”
That’s an easy statement to make, but for those of us who want to make our fiction as accurate as possible without being able to rely upon firsthand experience to do so, where do you draw the line between too much research and not enough? How do you ensure that your story has enough verisimilitude to create a believable alternate reality for your reader?
I’ve been reading reviews of the new Dan Brown book, Inferno, and much of the negative feedback targets Brown’s penchant for delivering an abundance of historical detail at the expense of pace and character. And yet millions of readers, even those who express disdain for Brown’s work, read on. I hear the same complaint about Tom Clancy — that his plots get bogged down in so much technological minutia that the books are nearly unreadable. (Full disclosure: I’ve not read a Tom Clancy novel, so I’m speculating based on what my friends who do read him have shared with me.)
It’s a balance, I suppose — putting the amount of detail into your work that your readers want and expect, while grounding it with a plot that’s compelling enough to avoid being overwhelmed.
But perhaps I’m confusing the need for accuracy with the desire of some authors to lecture their readers.
What do you think? How do you determine the amount of detail required to ensure that you “know” what you’re talking about without lecturing your reader?
Can you write crime fiction without being a criminal or a cop? Can you write a legal thriller without being a lawyer? Tweet This
“Remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first.” Stephen King Tweet This
Where do you draw the line between too much research and not enough? Tweet This