Writing What You Know
I’ve never been murdered or committed a murder. Outside of pure memoir, you can’t build a narrative by writing only what you know.
So you can limit what you write, or you can stretch what you know. No surprise that I prefer the latter. Authors of nonfiction and fiction alike do intensive research. Beyond libraries, archives, and the Internet, they’re out there talking to people and visiting places.
Some authors of police procedurals have worked as homicide detectives. Many more list a police department in their acknowledgements, with thanks for showing the author the inner workings of the job. Lately I’ve asked friends about dyslexia and cat behavior. Drafting a scene of fifteenth-century hand-to-hand combat in all its gory detail, I may consult an expert in historical swordsmanship.
Imagination takes us down haunted corridors we’ll never walk in real life. But wise writers walk down similar corridors, when possible, even without the ghosts. When you haven’t been there, go as close as you can to avoid getting it just plain wrong. I once read a student essay that described Holland as brilliantly colored with tulips on every hillside. It sounds plausible until you see a photograph of the flat, flat tulip fields of Holland, with nary a hill in sight.
Weathering Winds and Waves
Buying a house, getting another ready to sell, and preparing to move are enough to induce motion sickness, especially when they come up on short notice. Meanwhile the world keeps spinning. Cars, bodies, and relationships need maintenance. Serious ailments plague friends and family members. Some current events are too big to ignore.
A sailors’ trick for preventing seasickness is to look at the horizon. Amid high winds and high waves, the horizon is the only thing that doesn’t move.
For organizational activity, whether business or volunteer, this means keeping an eye on the mission. The faster the changes or the hotter the conflict, the more vital it is to remember the organization’s underlying reason to exist.
The same holds in rocky personal times. What is your mission at this phase of your life? Art, self-knowledge, kindness, discovery, service to a cause? Not your short-term objectives (they’re probably what’s rocking) but the steady purpose behind them. Your mission may not stay constant from decade to decade, but its constancy from week to week can hold the seasickness at bay.
This week I’m joining a class related to my current writing. I’m five chapters into the first draft of a late medieval mystery. Who has time to take a class or write a book in the middle of packing to move house? Personally, I don’t have time not to. It keeps my eye on the horizon.
Never Give Up
Our role models, fictional or real, embody traits we admire. Persistence is often among them. The hero pursues the quest through every danger and discouragement. The detective keeps searching until the mystery is solved. In the writing world, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was turned down 121 times before it found a publisher. Chicken Soup for the Soul garnered 140 rejections. Few people choose role models who quit at the first challenge, flitting from job to job, cause to cause, relationship to relationship. We’re inspired by those with the motto, “Never give up.”
Never give up? Really? Experienced chess players resign when their position is hopeless. Surely real-life investigators often need to set aside a cold case, even if their fictional counterparts always succeed eventually. We never hear about the writers who kept going through 200 rejections and never got published. They might have done better to move on and write something else.
“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em,” the gambler tells country singer Kenny Rogers. “The secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep.” The gambler doesn’t tell how to know whether to hold or fold. Don’t most of us sometimes struggle with this in one context or another?
It’s partly a matter of ends versus means. You can persist toward a large goal while letting go of a particular way you’d hoped to get there. Navigators speak of midcourse corrections, continual adjustments to stay on track toward a constant goal. You can stick to one endeavor, in the hope that eventually it will work, or at some point you can try a fresh venture in the hope that eventually something will work. The artistry lies in figuring out when you’ve reached that point.
What Is Pseudohistory?
A lot we learn as history never happened. “What’s the dividing line between romanticism, pseudohistory, and plain old error?” That comment under my May 30 post, “Time Travel Fallacies,” gives a lot to grapple with. Here’s a start.
I’d define pseudohistory as an account of the past that meets three criteria:
1. It purports to be true.
2. It either contradicts or goes far beyond the evidence.
3. It has an agenda.
Holocaust denial is a familiar example. Matriarchal prehistory, Neopaganism that poses as ancient, and Afrocentrism are less insidious, and more likely to be taken seriously in my circles (meaning I’ve probably just offended somebody). They may be less insidious, but not harmless when they’re taken as history rather than myth.
Taking pseudohistory as fact encourages a habit of devaluing evidence for the sake of an agenda. It’s fine for an agenda to shape the questions we ask. It can draw attention to peoples and issues that were traditionally ignored, or to longstanding assumptions that need reexamination. But to serve us well in the long run, the answers need to emerge from the evidence, not what we wish the evidence showed.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.