Thursday, 1 December 2016

Researching: Writing what you don't know

I've been writing stories since I was a child, when my knowledge of the world was minimal, and so I had to draw on the writer's greatest tool, imagination. I didn't let boring elements, such as facts and reality, get in my way and my stories were exciting. It wasn't until I was much older that I learned that there were supposedly 'rules' around writing that 'good' authors followed to be successful. Many of them I had been using without knowing their significance, such as structure and showing not telling, but one rule really bothered me: Write what you know.
What a boring rule. Now at the age of 50 plus, I do know a great deal about the world, but that knowledge is still limited, too limited for what I want to write. If my stories were to be tethered by what I knew, then what was the good of having imagination? That rule was quickly crossed out for me. I have a good brain and I intended to use it to learn about the things I didn't know.

When I wrote MASTER I had already determined that my main character was from Ukraine, a country I had little knowledge of. In fact the whole story would be set there and in the year 1995. My research began with the firm resolution to be as factual as possible, as if I had lived there. Writing my story began with months of reading everything about Ukraine, from history to culture. I went on forums and chatted with Ukrainians who were only too happy to set me straight about anything I wasn't certain about. This research also helped enormously in plot development, being able to incorporate historical facts into my story and give it a whole new level of reality. Because of the time frame my story was set in, I had to match facts up with how those elements would have worked in 1995 Ukraine. It wasn't easy, and I was exhausted by the time Master was published. The readers loved it and recognised the work that had gone into it, but they wanted more. They wanted a sequel. It didn't help that I had made my protagonist a super genius computer hacker.
It took 19 months to release SINS OF THE MASTER after an exhaustive study of hacking, computers, politics and many other elements.
To date, no-one has challenged me on anything in these books, but I will admit to a few areas where I took poetic licence and used my imagination, but never at the expense of undoing my plot by blatant ignorance. My advice to aspiring authors is to respect what you write and respect the intelligence of your readers. Do your research, but don't ever be afraid of venturing out into the unknown. It's a big exciting world and our stories shouldn't be bound by what we've experienced, but rather by what we are willing to learn.