“Write what you know” – An outdated concept?

I just finished reading B.S. Shapiro’s extraordinary novel The Art Forger.  Not to give it away (because you really ought to read it), it’s the story of an aspiring artist who makes her living wage doing reproductions of famous artwork that are sold as that – copies.  She does “copies” not forgeries – which is all about the intent of the piece.

I picked the book up in the first place because it is at least partly about Edgar Degas’ work, and I’ve been 20,000 words into a manuscript that revolves around Degas’ ballerina sculptures for several years now, having put it on the back burner while I finished other pieces of writing for publication (and in the meantime noting that I’m not the only writer of historical fiction who has found this an interesting subject).  To say that I’m a devotee of Degas’ work might be stretching it a bit, but I am a fan, and I find some of the unanswered questions about historical characters too tantalizing to ignore (remember my book about Edgar Allan Poe?).

"More than a century and a half have passed since Edgar Allan Poe died, alone in Baltimore in 1849, and still no one really knows how - or even why he was in that city. But Bridget knows, and this is her story."
“More than a century and a half have passed since Edgar Allan Poe died, alone in Baltimore in 1849, and still no one really knows how – or even why he was in that city. But Bridget knows, and this is her story.”

Anyway, as I read the book, I felt myself becoming very educated about the fine points of both the art and the science of oil painting.  I relied on the author of this fictional piece to have done her homework: I wanted to believe in the details that so made the story feel authentic and rich.  But I always kept in the back of my mind that this is a work of fiction…so the question always becomes: where is the line between fiction and fact drawn in these kinds of tales, and does it matter?

Most authors whose  fictional work touches on real people, places and things take great pride in doing their homework, and there is usually a note in the book somewhere indicating the aforementioned line: where researched facts give over to the imagination of the writer. So what, you might reasonably ask, does this have to do with the question of whether or not we should take heed of the old adage: “Write what you know”?  It occurs to me that in these days of the World Wide Web, we can “know” a great deal more than we used to!

There was a time when research was much more difficult.  If you’re as old as I am, you might remember slogging to the library to comb through page after page of real reference guides, real books, and real documents.  I have to say that I think back on those days with fondness; I truly enjoyed those hours spent among the great tomes crammed with information just aching to get out.  The trouble was just how long it took to actually find that information that would provide those all-important nuggets that add depth and breadth to a piece of writing.

The truth is that today, we can become semi-experts in many topics if we know how to do the research.

Writing in the New York Times earlier this year, Ben Yagoda, author of How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Errors and the Best Ways to Avoid Them and a faculty member in the English Department at the University of Delaware, clarifies for us as follows:

“Writers who are intimately familiar with their subject produce more knowing, more confident and, as a result, stronger results…the idea is to investigate the subject till you can write about it with complete confidence and authority. Being a serial expert is actually one of the cool things about the very enterprise of writing…”[1] 

And therein lays the wonder of these days of information overload: for writers, this overload is among the most essential tools in our toolboxes.

The trick, as with all tools, is to become an expert at using it!

As my own writing segued from non-fiction into fiction, I’ve been forever grateful for the research skill I was able to hone through the years.  For any of us who are writing fiction with a basis in fact, those skills are crucial to the authentic voice we all seek.


[1] Ben Yagoda.  Should we write what we know?  The New York Times online, July 22, 2013, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/22/should-we-write-what-we-know/?_r=0

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