Posts Tagged historical novels

How to write what you don’t know – research tips for writers

6930840018_583f784d83Ideally we’d all write from personal experience, but most of us have much bigger imaginations than our pockets, lives, bravery levels or the laws of the land can accommodate. So we have to wing it from research.

Ghostwriting is the ultimate rebuke to the idea that you write what you know. We pretend all the way, even down to our identity, outlook and heart. When I was ghosting I became a dab hand at travel by mouse – there was no way the publisher paid enough for me to jet to my book’s location. Or would spring me out of jail.

So here are my tips for bridging the experience gap.

Good first-hand accounts

Obviously the web is full of blogs about just about anything. They’ll give you up-close, spit-and-sweat details from those who are living the life. But look further afield. Good memoirs and novels will not only provide raw material, they’ll show how to bring a place alive on the page.

Guides for writerNot really undeads

There are scores of books published for writers who want to bone up on unfamiliar areas – whether crime, ways to kill or die, historical periods and what might be possible in steampunk. Or how to write a vampire novel. Some of you may know I’m an obsessive equestrian, and Dave’s roleplaying fraternity used to ask me constant questions about what you could do with horses until I wrote this piece for them.

What everybody else may already know

If there are famous books or movies that tackle your subject or feature your key location, get acquainted with them. Some readers hunt down every story that features their favourite keywords. They will not be impressed if you miss an obvious location for a murderer to hide a body, or an annual festival that should muck up your hero’s plans.


Flickr is wonderful for finding travellers’ snaps. But don’t discount professional photography. The best captures the emotional essence of a place, not just the visual details. I wrote one novel set in India and found a book of photographs of the monsoon. Those exquisite images of deluge gave me powerful, dramatic scenes.

Before the days of broadband, my go-to was National Geographic on searchable CD-ROM. I bought it as a Christmas present for Dave many years ago and probably you can now get the same thing on line. Sublime photography and descriptive writing that will get your fingers tapping.

Befriend an expert

Misapprehensions are inevitable if you’re appropriating others’ experiences. If possible, tame an expert you can bounce ideas off – especially if you’ve hung a major plot point on your theoretical understanding. When ghosting, I could ring my ‘authors’ for advice, but they weren’t always available so I found other sources to get my facts straight.

You’ll be surprised where these experts could be hiding. I never noticed my neighbourhood had a diving shop until I needed to write scenes featuring scuba. They were flattered and excited when I asked if I could pick their brains for a novel. When I was working on My Memories of a Future Life, a friend mentioned her family knew one of the BBC Young Musicians of the Year. Voila – I had an introduction to a concert pianist. Right now, I’m recruiting high-altitude climbers and pop musicians. Say hi in the comments if you know any.

Thanks for the travel pic moyan_brenn

What do you use to write what you don’t know? Share your tips in the comments! And do you have any research needs at the moment? Appeal for help here and you may find your perfect partner!

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‘Dark bars, blazing sun and volatile people’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Erika Robuck

My guest this week says music helped her slip away from 21st century family life into the volatile, simmering Key West of 1935. Her novel features a half-Cuban woman who goes to work for Ernest Hemingway (who himself once said he used words the way that Bach used notes). She is Erika Robuck and she’s on the Red Blog talking about the Undercover Soundtrack for Hemingway’s Girl.

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Got to explain my story’s world… but how do I avoid exposition?

I have a client who has written an ambitious novel set in a dystopia. It’s a powerful idea, but he hadn’t made me understand the world. I was constantly confused about what the characters were doing and why the scenes he showed me were significant.

He explained he was trying to avoid exposition – for which he gets a stack of brownie points, if not actual brownies. But how should he fill the gaps?

Don’t even mention ‘prologue’

Neither of us even uttered the words ‘explanatory prologue’. I’m saying them here for the sake of completeness. A prologue describing the world is not, generally, a good way to captivate a reader. They want to plunge into the story and bond with characters, not sit down for a lecture.

What’s exposition?

Exposition is when the author tells the reader something they need to understand and is obvious about it. So a pair of characters natter about a subject they don’t need to talk about. ‘I have to go and clean the neutron drive, Susan. As you know, we’re on a big spaceship and have been for many months.’ Unless the line is to show an ironic character quirk, this is the author shoving his face between the characters.

Opposite of TMI

But if you give the reader too little context, they don’t know where they are or what anything means to the characters. Yours truly, Baffled.

Let me explain

The only sin of exposition is that it is unnatural. So you find ways to slip this material in without breaking the fourth wall.

If the world is new to the character, like Harry Potter’s entrance to Hogwarts, your task is simple. Get the reader curious, then show them all the mad stuff. But if the world isn’t new to the character, you have to be more subtle.

Here’s how George Orwell does it in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

He begins with a tour of Winston Smith’s ordinary life. We have a day in April (relatable, familiar) and clocks striking thirteen (borderline normal, and strange enough to intrigue us). Winston is hurrying along in the wind to his grotty apartment block (normal). The lift is out of order (relatable) because of Hate Week (crikey, what’s that?). There’s a poster: ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ (intriguing and sinister). Inside his mostly familiar apartment is a telescreen, which he can’t turn off (weird). Outside his window there’s a sign in a distorted form of English (skewed and forbidding). He tries to find a place where the screen can’t see him (exactly as we might, because it isn’t nice being watched). Why is he hiding? To do something we take for granted – he is writing in a diary.

This sequence is explaining the world but it’s totally natural. (Historical novelists have to do it too.) It’s showing a piece of life that we would recognise, and intriguing us with what’s distorted. Even better, Orwell has added the character’s need: privacy to be himself. Because a world isn’t about things, it’s about people.

Information, information

At any time in a story, we might have to convey lumps of information that the characters know but the readers don’t – for instance, what spelunking is, how a horseshoe is made. Explaining a world is no different.

Exposition is simply when you do it badly.

Let’s have some more examples of authors who explain their characters’ worlds with style – share in the comments!

 COMPETITION WINNERS If you get this blog by email, you might have had trouble with the post I whipped up first thing announcing the winners of the Future Life special edition. I loused up the link to the Red Blog – it should have been this. Doh. Scoot to the bottom of the post for the results. And note to self: medicate with coffee before hitting publish.

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