Posted in Writing books, Writing craft

“Write what you know” – An outdated concept?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

Posted in Backstory

My writing ‘girlfriends’: Now Nora’s gone

I am a woman who would rather poke her eyes out with a red-hot poker than spend an evening with a bunch of women.  The ubiquity of magazine articles extolling the virtues of our ‘girlfriends’ have never resonated with me.  My girlfriend preference is for the arms-length, mentor type.  And one of those women whose work has inspired (and I daresay influenced me) died last week.  I’m talking of course about Nora Ephron.

I don’t think that her influence on me was in my conscious mind until I read about her death and thought, “We’ve lost a good one.”  Then I started thinking.

In all of my writing (of the non-academic type), my protagonists (whether fictional or real) are strong women, feminist types, ahead of their times or just plain wise.  Although she may have been best known to the masses as a screenwriter, it wasn’t her movies that inspired me – it was her journalistic career and her books.

I first read Heartburn in 1983 or ’84, soon after it was published.  Relating a seriously funny take on the break-up of a perfect marriage, the book resonated with me partly because I had escaped a (less-than-perfect) marriage myself only a few years earlier, and I found her witticisms so spot-on that she captivated me for the long-term.  When I think about some of her most valuable pieces of advice over the years, I’m almost alarmed how much I agree with her.

When she said, “I am continually fascinated at the difficulty intelligent people have in distinguishing what is controversial from what is merely offensive,” I found myself nodding in agreement.

And then there was advice for living: “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four.”  Yes, I should have done that.

But of course, she also said, “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

Amen.  And I don’t feel bad about my neck.  Yet.  Sigh.

Posted in Publishing, Writing

Setting priorities: A writer’s lament

Lately, it seems that I’ve been spending far more time on creating blog entries (mostly on The Discerning Travelers) and trying to figure out Pinterest (in fairness, I’m once again teaching a course on Social Media to our graduate students this spring and need to keep up), than I have been doing real writing.  I seem to have a notion that there is real writing and there is – other stuff.  But what, precisely is real writing and why do I think it has to be my priority?

…just as I was considering this question, I opened up my email and found a message from one of my publishers.  This is a publisher that I haven’t heard from in some two years – nope, not even a royalty statement – that is unless you count an email from someone in the office there suggesting that I pay them for the 100 books they sent to me that I did not order.  When I told them that I would send them back to them when they sent me a royalty statement (because, as I mentioned casually to them, they were in breach of contract), I never heard from them again.  Until today.

It seems that the company is being liquidated.  Further, it seems that the authors were aware of this; the publisher herself is ill.  Funny about that – I’m one of their authors and I didn’t know.  So, what this means it that all rights to the book revert to me and I can do with it what I want.  This raises a few important questions for an author.

First, I’m wondering what, if anything, I ought to do.  I immediately sent them an email asking for a specific confirmation of the revision of all rights and for all of the electronic files related to the work.  Which begs the second question…

What should I do with the files when I get them?   What I am certainly not going to do is to buy their copies that are currently housed in a warehouse at the University of Toronto Press which distributes for them.  I was never all that happy with the quality of the actual physical book in any case.  So, if I do anything with it, I do it myself.  Which leads to the next question…

Is the book still current enough for it to be made available on other terms?  Since it is a memoir, it isn’t really out of date, and if a bit of effort were put into marketing (that was never done by the publisher in the first place – I did it all myself), it could re-emerge as both a physical book and as an e-book.

And all of this leads me to the final, and perhaps more philosophical question:  Why did I even proceed with having it published by a traditional publisher in the first place?  I could have done as good a job on my own, had as much reach on my own and kept control. This is a problem with many small publishing houses – they don’t have the resources needed to do a really professional job.  I’ve reflected on the models of publishing before, and now I’m more convinced than ever that we do need to find a new model that captures the best of the traditional approach to publishing while at the same time manages to put the author front and center, rather than the publisher.  The author needs to be in the driver’s seat in my view.

So, does all of this have any relevance to the question of real writing and the priority it need or need not have in a writer’s life?  It does insofar as it takes me back to a piece of writing that, by all accounts, seems like real writing.  And it gives me yet another reason to procrastinate from finishing the novel that languishes among the electronic files on my computer in a file titled…well, I’m not going to tell you yet.

Suddenly, my priority focus, for better or for worse, is on a book that I thought had been put to bed.  Now I just have to decide if I should tuck it in and turn off the lights, or wake it up and have a party.