Monday, November 22, 2010

Debunking Some Writing Myths 2

Here's a rule that writers taking courses are often told: Write about what you know.

To which I say, rubbish. Write about what you want to write about, what you're passionately curious about. Then do the necessary research. I have little interest in writing about what I know, because, well, why bother? Writing is very much a process of exploration for me and I don't have much interest in writing solely about what I know because there is no heat of the chase, nothing to discover and uncover.

Take my most recent novel THE TROUBLE WITH DILLY, for example.

It's about a girl, Dilly -- wildly imaginative, exuberant and impulsive -- who lives with her family in a large Canadian city above their family grocery and Indian food take out, and who plays hockey. I've always wanted to write about a girl who played hockey, but I don't know (or rather, didn't know) much about it. Nor did I know anyone who runs a grocery store.

So I did my research. I visited corner grocery stores in a variety of places to try and get the feel of them, to get Dilly's family store right, a sense of the layout and items they'd stock. The atmosphere and pulse.

I also spoke to family, friends and neighbours who knew about hockey, followed hockey games on TV and even went to local Pee Wee hockey game, and met up with the coach and a few girls who played in the team, to hear their stories and viewpoints. It was a huge amount of fun, and a wonderful glimpse into the hockey culture.

I also had to research Christmas customs in Hungary, immigration challenges for new immigrants, some aspects of Chinese culture, and much more.

It was all part of the fun, part of widening my view of life and expanding my horizons of interest.

I like to think this story is a quintessentially Canadian Christmas story, celebrating as it does cultural diversity and hockey.

But it would never have been written if I stuck only to what I know. For that matter, nor would most of the other books I've written.


  1. Fascinating to learn that you had to learn all this. Would you say though that you started from a kernal of emotion you already knew about?

  2. Lizann, thanks for your post. I don't know if I started from a kernel of emotion I already knew about so much as some kernel of emotion in me resonated with the ideas as they flew in/by. Or maybe this is potatoe potahtoe, and simply semantics, but yes, I guess I'd have to have that signature emotion in me to delighted with the idea enough to want to write about it and explore it further. At other times, though, it's as though the idea is stimulating and interesting enough intellectually so that I want to invest time researching it, and then, when I've done the research, I find the emotional resonance.

  3. That's neat to know you can come at it both ways emotionally. Thanks, Rachna!

  4. Thanks for raising this Lizann. It points to something I should have made clearer in my blog post -- that with any piece of writing, I do need to have that emotional link, whether I come by it circuitously, as in a slow enchantment through research, or in a head-on collision when the idea first strikes. But that emotional connection is crucial, because without it, I can't write convincingly.

  5. It speaks very well of the modern author (yes, I mean you, Rachna!) that she or he is willing and able to "do the research." Wasn't the original comment from Rabindranath Tagore in "My Village" (that's likely not the title, but is the title of the book produced by the female protagonist...)? And at that time, it was better to write of what you had knowledge of. But we are now blessed with the technological ability to glean knowledge from so many sources! And the world is far richer for the fiction that is produced when an intelligent, empathetic author combines personal experience with well-researched knowledge to produce a unique perspective on our world.