What Do I Need to Know?

I remember reading Hemingway’s advice to young writers, and at the time I read it I was pretty young, maybe 20 or 21.  One thing he wrote was that you must write, all the time, and you must also read, certainly “all the great books.”  I don’t have the article in front of me and I don’t remember, at this distance in time, what books Hemingway considered great.  Perhaps you and I might agree on a few, and perhaps not.  But the important point might be to establish an orientation for yourself as a writer; a sense of what those who came before you have accomplished, what the limitations and advantages of our medium (words on a page, even if the form is digital rather than paper and ink) might be.

Do I mean basic things like grammar, spelling and the construction of proper sentences and paragraphs?  Of course.  A writer has to convey meaning.  Words on a page are just the blueprint you give the reader, who constructs the images of your words in her mind.  The more carefully you employ your craft, the more precisely those images in the minds of others will match your intention.

But what else does a writer need to know?

A writer of non-fiction might simply need to know what she has experienced and nothing else.  Some great memoirs have been penned by people who never wrote extensively or professionally.  An outstanding example is that of Ulysses S. Grant.  One assumes that as a soldier Grant penned reports and field orders; relatively short pieces of prose.  The memoir Grant wrote as he was dying is immense, well-connected, with a good flow and a clarity of expression that we fiction writers may only envy.  Perhaps Grant, not requiring any invention, was free simply to tell his story as he remembered it; whereas in fiction one invents every single word from one’s own imagination.  Is this a greater or lesser effort than recall?

At least one fiction writer, Robert E. Howard, claimed that he wrote some of his stories as if they were being related to him by the character in the story.  Another writer, Robert Graves, claimed to write by the “analeptic” method.  I had assumed by that that Graves placed himself in a light trance while writing, but my OAD defines “analeptic” as a drug “tending to restore a person’s health or strength.”  The point is, perhaps, that “imagination” takes as many forms as there are people on the planet, much less writers.

So what education is necessary to writers of fiction?  Note the “OAD” or Oxford American Dictionary, mentioned above.  A dictionary is a great place to begin research.  For example, Graves being English and educated in England prior to World War One, was “analeptic” used in a different sense then?  Or, perhaps, did Graves use another word entirely, and “analeptic” was an editorial error?

Or, perhaps, I’m mistaken about the word used.  One problem with putting together a lot of knowledge over a period of years is that sometimes you know you’ve read something but remembering when and where is just not possible.

By nature I like research.  I like to dig for answers.  It isn’t the finding of answers, necessarily, but the search itself that I enjoy.  Often enough I discover answers I didn’t know I was looking for, or questions I had no idea I should ask.  That’s just me, though.  The question here is, what education is necessary?

Suppose you decide to write historical fiction.  How much research do you intend to do if, say, you plan on setting your story in Regency-era England?  Personally I’d have to start from scratch.  I know very little about that particular place and time.  But one thing you might want to do is find memoirs specific to that place and that era, to get a feel for the patterns and topics of speech if nothing else.

And of course nowadays there are websites tailor-made to the research needs of a writer.  Type in a search term and wade through the options presented, but remember, it isn’t always the question you ask that’s important, but the question that occurs to you while you research that leads you to knowledge important to your story, sometimes as if that knowledge were tailor-made just for you.

Your own knowledge can fool you, especially once you begin to consider yourself as knowledgeable.  I began a first draft of a novel, Boxcar Red Leader, set during the defense of Port Moresby, New Guinea, in May of 1942, right at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea.  I have a fair working knowledge of aviation history and military history, especially with regard to World War II, and I worked through the first draft with only two historical resources in hand: the pilot’s information manuals for the Bell P-39 Airacobra, flown by the novel’s protagonists, and the Martin B-26 Marauder, which one of the protagonists flies on one mission.  Why was this important?  Does it matter what the exact range of the P-39 is under certain conditions?  Sure it does!  That one thing defines much of what my characters physically could and couldn’t do in the novel.  They can go to the Japanese airbase at Lae, for example, 187 miles north of Port Moresby; but they couldn’t go much further than that, or escort bombers flying to attack the Japanese base at Rabaul, a distance of 493 miles one way.  Those distances, by the way, are accurate.  When I began rewriting I spent a lot of time on Google Earth, measuring distances, and those were two of them.

Then something else began to bother me during the production of the second draft.  As I reread the first draft I realized that I assumed the existence of a lot of infrastructure around Port Moresby that simply didn’t exist at the time of the story.  So, on rewrite, I had to go back and ask what the roads were like, did they live in  tents and grass shacks, what did they eat, what did they drink, what medical care did they have available?

All of these questions are important for a single simple reason: in an historical novel, they define the tools and experiences available to your characters.

Oddly, I discovered that my background inventing worlds for science fiction stories was just as valid when researching and describing a foreign background for historical fiction.  The questions are almost completely identical.  More, even, the contemporary reader isn’t familiar with the technology available in 1942.  This is a crucial point.  Very much more often than not one could make an error regarding a minor point that only a few readers would be knowledgeable enough to catch.  What do you do with such an error?  Correct it?  Or just leave it in, who’ll know?

My position is that a writer owes the reader as much accuracy as possible.  In some eras of history that might not place a lot of responsibility on the writer.  If you know something about sword fighting, for example, that will serve you well for stories set in periods from the Bronze Age up through the early Gunpowder Era and often to the mid-19th Century.  Unless, of course, one wants to worry about refinements, such as the different styles of fighting employed by the Vikings or the Roman gladiators.  Then you’d better go and look for a local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

But there’s an even more important point to telling the truth to as great a degree as reasonably possible, and that’s authenticity.  If you, the writer, are confident that the story is true at least in the details, then you can have that much more confidence in the story itself.

There’s an old aphorism in writing that you should write about what you know or are familiar with.  I think that means you should learn as much as you can, because you can’t predict what might be useful in a story you may not even have thought of yet.

Besides, how many writers have gotten ideas for great stories simply by stumbling across a little-known historical fact?  A friend of mine collects swords, and he showed me a Roman gladius he had purchased.  It was found by a road crew in Libya sometime in the 20th Century; my friend told me, but I don’t recall the date now.  But think about it.  That sword, lying in the sand of the Libyan desert, is an anchor in time.  It says, someone owned me, and lost me, and here I lie as a result.  Who owned the sword?  Was he part of a legion engaged in some campaign?  Did the owner lose the sword in battle or through carelessness?

These are just a few of the questions a simple artifact raises.  But asking the questions gives you a starting place for a story, perhaps more than one.

Which leads us write back to the question, how much education is necessary?  I hope you understand when I write that each story you write will impose its own requirements.  Sometimes that won’t be onerous; but sometimes writing the story will be the easy part, once you’ve earned that PhD in Etruscan Societal Norms of the pre-Roman era.

Besides, it’s fun, and gives you an excuse to surf the Internet when you’re tired of writing.


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