Welcome to Writing Tip Wednesdays, where I post (you guessed it) tips on writing every Wednesday at 5:00 PM ET. This week’s topic:
Greetings to you! It has been a bit since my last post, though I hope you’ll excuse my absence—I was in Japan, and thus my mind was on all things Japanese! Japan is my heart country, and I would love the chance to live there for longer than a month at a time (both of my trips have been a month in length). Now that I am back on American time, I am excited to get back into my normal routine: writing! And writing a lot. =)
My significant other and I had a chance to hear Neil Gaiman (author of Norse Mythology, American Gods, The Sandman, et. al.) speak a few weeks ago, and when discussing Norse Mythology particularly, which is his own retelling of the Norse myths, he made an excellent point. To paraphrase, he said that it is a writer’s job to know just enough of a subject they are including in their book. Did he say you needed to be an expert in a subject? NO!
Here’s what he actually said:
Mr. Gaiman compared researching for one’s writing to a high school book report—you need to know just enough to get by so that it looks like you’ve done all the reading. 😉 And while this is not a habit to encourage in high school, you can do anything that works when you’re a professional, right?
Well, here’s the thing. You’re not writing for a grade, first of all—often you are writing for an impression. For example, my significant other is working on a book about Puritanical America. What are the major things that I, having not formally immersed myself in the study of the time period, think of when I think of 1600s in the Americas? Tall hats, black clothes, buckles on shoes, harsh law, witch trials. I might think of other things like, no electricity, candles, fireplaces, farming, livestock, certain styles of housing, etc.
You’ll notice, however, that my impressions are very vague, and this is good—because I’m just like the high school teacher who knows of the book you “read,” but has not read it themself. This is what we want to use to our advantage.
As writers, we want to know just enough so that we seem like the experts, without having a PhD in a particular area. While that would be nice, most of us have so many stories and diverse interests, that we do not have the lifetimes to devote to becoming an expert in each area. Which is why I want to talk you about a concept that artists talk about: drawing in the round.
DRAWING IN THE ROUND
When you draw something, you want it to be detailed. But sometimes, if you are trying to capture every single minute detail, your work becomes less impressive, and is not easily as readable.
You see that? “Not easily as readable.” Just like visual artists, writers need to be sure there work is “readable—” this means that instead of being sure of the exact kind, texture, smell, and dimensions of candles used during the Puritanical era, you simply confirm that candles were used, and write that So-and-So lit a candle.
Does that seem too simple?
Let me put it another way…
Example: “The man lit the ___ inch wide, ___ inch long [substance made of] candle with a [particular kind of wooden match] that smelled of [research what the smell of the wood is], and the smoke was a [research the exact color of the smoke of this kind of candle—but wait, what is the wick made out of? Must research.]
Look how many great opportunities you have to distract yourself by writing with useless research! Incredible, no?
Instead of all this, I could simply confirm that Puritans used candles. O__O That’s it. Makes it a heck of a lot simpler, doesn’t it?
Simple is a good thing. People latch on to simple details, and “simple details” create a complex world.
Choosing Your Details
In Neil Gaiman’s case, when he did his own retelling of the Norse myths, he carefully chose which things to keep, which to discard, and which to add in anew; this is precisely why his book is interesting and unique: it is his own retelling.
When you are a fiction writer, you are not a historian—you are first and foremost a writer.
When you go to do research for whatever type of novel you are writing, become an expert only in what you need, and avoid all that is superfluous. Detail is great. Detail is world-building. Excess is just that: excess. Exclude the excess and include the necessary. Make your world richer with detail—not crowded with clutter.
Verifying details is great, and often this should be one’s approach to writing and researching for a novel. Instead of reading ten books, I will read the ones of importance when I can, sifting through for the most important details, and otherwise make due with other simpler searches on the in-between so I don’t get distracted from writing my book by researching. Remember, too, that you can always put an asterisk by something you are not sure about and come back to it later in your revision process, because I promise, whether you like it or not, there will be an editing process before you submit your novel for possible publication. 😉
So, with this, I want to encourage you to research “in the round” so that the details you do choose to include are vibrant, meaningful, and contributory. You are a writer—research, and then write. Don’t write, research, and then forget to write again.
Alyssa Grace Moore
You can also find Alyssa on Twitter: @alyssagracem
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