Writing what we know

I’ve been looking for Arthur this week. King Arthur, that is.  At the moment, there are five books about him on my desk, and another four about Celtic myths.  I’ve also got some web-pages bookmarked and a lot of notes – paper and electronic, to work from, that I’ve been putting together over the summer.

I like research.  I’m not sure what that says about my personality, and if you know, please don’t tell me.  I’d rather not have my suspicions confirmed.  Besides, if you’re reading this, chances are you’re suffering from the same condition anyway.

The trNellieick with gathering background information is discipline.  The Arthur stuff is easy, because I’ve a course starting in November, so I’ve a deadline.  Take away the deadline and it’s a different story.

Two years ago I offered to put together a family history for my father.  Two of my uncles had already traced the family tree as far back as was feasible, but I was interested in combining that with a family photo album that dated from the 1870s onwards.  I gathered up materials, interviewed aunts, uncles and second cousins, then settled down to sort it out.

Six months later I had become a regular visitor to the local archives.  I learned how to use the micro-fiche, computer records and filing systems.

I added branches to the family tree.  I visited places where our ancestors lived and read between the lines of the records of their births, deaths, marriages and census forms.  Some of their lives became more than just patterns on paper, I got a feel for who they were and began to imagine what their lives were like.

But out of the alphabet of files and folders on my hard-drive I needed to create the book I had promised.  It was to be a small, family thing: a factual book of pictures with words rather that vice versa.  One day, I thought, I might write this saga.  Meanwhile, I visited a printer who set me my deadline.Frederick

It was hard cutting my trips to the archive, letting go of the stories I had glimpsed in the parish registers and workhouse records.  I knew that left to my own inclinations, I could have lost myself there, chasing names and following links.  The labyrinth of facts would have drawn me on to ever more obscure connections until I had forgotten where I started.

Often, when I’m starting to write fiction, I find myself needing to look things up, to check details.   There is a saying that we should write what we know, and I suppose in that case, the issue of research might not arise.  Except that somehow, even when I start out from a place I do know, I all too often find myself writing about places and things I don’t know, but can imagine, so for me, at any rate, research will always be an issue.

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4 thoughts on “Writing what we know

  1. I think of “Write what you know” as pre-Internet advice. I’ve adapted it for myself to: Write what you can find out, whether that’s about ancestors or stories set in other places and times. I have a late 20’s-early 30’s Hollywood mystery cooking right now, in fact. Funnest research ever. 🙂

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  2. The hardest thing about research for me is trying to find out what the landscape (shops and such) was like at the time, even if I live in the setting.

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