Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Write What You DON’T Know By Marie Wells Coutu

My 8th-grade English teacher told us to “write what you know.” So did almost every creative writing teacher in high school.
Marie Wells Coutu

I've Never Been to Venus

Nevertheless, that year, I wrote my first novel, I Came from Venus (obviously a teen romance). It was only about 10 chapters, and probably 2-3 handwritten pages per chapter, but still….I certainly knew nothing about Venus, but I guess I knew about being a teen-aged girl who felt like an outsider (don’t most teen girls?).

But I've Been to Minneapolis

Fast forward several decades, and I started to pursue a second career: writing fiction. This time, I chose to write a contemporary women’s fiction set in Minneapolis. I knew something about the city, having lived near the city for more than 20 years and worked downtown for 5. I included scenes at one of the lakes, downtown on Nicollet Mall, at a restaurant near my workplace, driving on I-35 or I-94—all places I knew well.

I stayed away from historical genres, even though I love to read them. Not that I was afraid of research—I’d really enjoyed the research I did in college—but because I worried about getting the details wrong.

I've Never Been to Guatemala

However, the plot of my first novel included several scenes set in Guatemala, someplace I had never visited. My journalistic and research instincts kicked in. I interviewed a friend’s mother, who had been on mission trips there. I studied her photos. I trolled the Internet for articles and websites about the country, the people, the dress, the customs. I got lucky when I discovered a blog by a documentary videographer. She wrote details that I could not have gotten from a tourism website, including the sounds and smells.

Since that novel’s publication, I’ve heard from several readers who’ve lived in or traveled to the country extensively. To a person, they said, “I can tell you’ve been to Guatemala. Reading the book felt like I was there.”

I've Never Done Any of These

Since then, I have written fictional stories about other things I had no personal knowledge of:

  • Carriage tour licensing in Charleston, South Carolina: my knowledge was limited to taking the tours;
  • The Tennesse governor and his wife: the closest I've been to politics was working in county government communications;
  • Tennis: I'm not at all athletic, although I did try to learn the game as a kid  for about two weeks. Then I gave up.

And I've Never Made Moonshine

Now I’m tackling a historical story set in 1932 that deals with moonshining and Prohibition. It is set in western Kentucky near my hometown, and it draws on some of that research I did in college. I’ve spent a lot more time researching the era, the people, the language, and the lifestyle.

My English teachers were wrong. You can write what you don’t know, but you have to do your research. My favorite sources include:

  • Interviews with real people who have experienced the place or activity I’m writing about;
First-person written or recorded accounts;

  • Local historical societies or tourism organizations in the area;

  • Living history museums where historical cooking, farming, or building methods are demonstrated;

  • Google Earth (for contemporary stories);

  • Online archives of photos, newspapers, maps, etc. (for historical stories);
YouTube videos of activities such as sports (i.e., tennis) or other procedures (such as making moonshine).

    Research is Your Friend

    Individual results may vary. Research needs will be different for each story, but don’t be afraid to learn about what you don’t know and then write about it. Through your stories, readers will also learn about things they don’t know.

    Let's hear from you: what are your favorite resources? What topics are you researching for your novel? 

    About the Author
    The Secret Heart
    by Marie Wells Coutu
    Marie Wells Coutu retired in 2013 from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. She now spends her time writing fiction—when she’s not busy having fun with her husband or with their four grandchildren. She has written three novels for Write Integrity Press, including the award-winning For Such a Moment and Thirsting for More. Her most recent book, The Secret Heart, released in February. She is working on a historical novel set in western Kentucky, near where she grew up.

    Marie is a regular contributor to Seriously WriteFor more posts by Marie, click here.