Tuesday, December 13, 2016

How to Make "Write What You Know" Work for You

By Kristina Riggle, @krisriggle

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Some writing advice is so common it's practically a cliché, yet it still doesn't really tell us how to follow that advice. "Write what you know" is one such bit of writing wisdom. We've all heard it, all tried to follow it, but we often stumble over the best way to put what we know into practice. Kristina Riggle takes to the podium today to share some tips of using what you know (and could know) to your advantage.

Kristina lives and writes in West Michigan. Her debut novel, Real Life & Liars, was a Target “Breakout” pick and a “Great Lakes, Great Reads” selection by the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association. Her other novels have been honored by independent booksellers, including an IndieNext Notable designation for The Life You’ve Imagined.

Kristina has published short stories in the Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, Espresso Fiction, and elsewhere, and is a former co-editor for fiction at Literary Mama. Kristina was a full-time newspaper reporter before turning her attention to creative writing. She likes to run and read, though not at the same time.

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Take it away Kristina...

The evergreen advice for the aspiring writer is, "Write what you know." What do I know?

I know how to be a 1990s newspaper reporter (used it: THINGS WE DIDN’T SAY) how to be a mother of children from newborn to teenager (used it: all of my books), how to play a stringed instrument (used it: THE WHOLE GOLDEN WORLD), how to be a middling yoga student (used it: THE WHOLE GOLDEN WORLD) how to work in a bookstore (used it: KEEPSAKE), how to work in a family business (used it: THE LIFE YOU’VE IMAGINED) and how fertility treatments work (used it: THE WHOLE GOLDEN WORLD).

Without intending to, I'd strip-mined my ordinary middle class existence. With prompting from my literary agent to stretch my creative wings for Book Six, I decided to write a novel about Broadway songwriting in the 1930s. Great! Trouble was, I knew so little about the topic that I didn’t know which Gershwin brother was the lyricist.

(It was Ira.)

Thus I began VIVIAN IN RED knowing nothing whatsoever about being a first-generation Jewish American piano playing lyricist son of a tailor raised in the Bronx of the ‘20s and ‘30s. I was terrified, but also tired of writing what I knew.

So, how in the blazes did I do it? I picture my research process beginning with a wide angle camera lens, surveying the broad landscapes of my topics: early 20th century New York City, Jewish immigration, songwriting, the evolution of Broadway. Then the camera slowly zooms in to pick up individual details.

1. For the general research, I dove into books and old newspapers.

I read a glossy coffee table book on the history of Broadway, meant to be a companion piece to a PBS series, chock full of fun pictures and anecdotes. I read a massive tome on the history of Jewish immigration into New York City and their culture as new and first-generation Americans. I also visited the big downtown library, which has old New York Times on microfilm, and scrolled through pages of articles and advertisements, which gave a feel for the news, life and language of the day. I found a book called SINCE YESTERDAY, written in 1939, about the 1930s, which was practically an eyewitness account, without the veneer of our romantic or simplistic modern viewpoint.

2. Then I needed more specific books.

I found Philip Furia, an expert on the lyrics and lyricists of the day, and I read his work. I read biographies of songwriters who would have been contemporaries of my fictional Milo and took special note of their working lives and any specific information ever provided about how they wrote and how much money they made. I read a tattered autobiography, published in the 1960s, of a producer who would have been known to Milo, and then put him in the book. That’s Max Gordon.

Eventually, I ran out of questions a book could answer, to say nothing of websites, which are helpful for certain purposes, but can’t provide enough depth, accuracy and detail by themselves.

3. For detail, I conducted interviews.

In my newspaper days, I was lucky to get a day to prepare to interview a source, and certainly never had the time to read an entire book of information before the interview. So as a novelist, getting to read such swaths of material before ever picking up the phone, or sending an email, was a true luxury. This meant I didn’t have to waste time asking general questions like, “How did songwriting work in the 1930s?” and I could instead ask, “So where did they do their work, anyway? In an office? At home? What did the offices of music publishers look like inside?” I learned through this process – and through the topical research I’d done for my contemporary work – that there is always someone who knows the answer to your weird, offbeat question. And the Internet makes it easy to find this person. My interviewing led me to the great joy of talking on the phone to Ernie Harburg, son of Yip Harburg, lyricist for some little ditties you might know such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Paper Moon.”

I did a lot of reading up on being Jewish in New York at the time, but eventually my Gentile self had to risk revealing embarrassing ignorance by picking the brains of my Jewish friends--which I did, in great detail, and my friends were very, very patient with me. Most people are. Most people are so pleased you asked, and that you are trying to get it right.

Research, as any writer of historical fiction will tell you, can lead you down a rabbit hole, however. There is always something else to know, some other fact or atmospheric detail you can add. Which is why…

4. Sometimes I just gave up.

I lost a whole day’s work trying to determine whether an elevated train in early 20th century New York would create enough wind as it whooshed overhead to disturb someone’s hat. I had written a line where Milo grabbed his hat to keep it from flying off his head, then decided that might not have made sense. Down into the research rabbit hole I went, emerging hours later, blinking and confused as to where the time had gone, none the wiser about train wind.

In the end, I just changed the line. No wind necessary; the train’s noise merely startles him. Could I have found someone who knew that answer? With enough time, sure. Would it have been worth the hours spent? In this case, no.

This is just my process; I’m sure other writers have their own research strategies. But I hope my strategy of broad focus with general information, then zooming in your “camera” on details specific to your plot, can be useful to any kind of work—not necessarily historical—about which a writer starts out not knowing very much.

As it turns out, “write what you know” is terrific advice. But you don’t have to limit yourself to what you know right now.

About Vivian in Red

Famed Broadway producer Milo Short may be eighty-eight but that doesn’t stop him from going to the office every day. So when he steps out of his Upper West Side brownstone on one exceptionally hot morning, he’s not expecting to see the impossible: a woman from his life sixty years ago, cherry red lips, bright red hat, winking at him on a New York sidewalk, looking just as beautiful as she did back in 1934.

The sight causes him to suffer a stroke. And when he comes to, the renowned lyricist discovers he has lost the ability to communicate. Milo believes he must unravel his complicated history with Vivian Adair in order to win back his words. But he needs help—in the form of his granddaughter Eleanor— failed journalist and family misfit. Tapped to write her grandfather’s definitive biography, Eleanor must dig into Milo’s colorful past to discover the real story behind Milo’s greatest song Love Me, I Guess, and the mysterious woman who inspired an amazing life.

A sweeping love story, family mystery and historical drama set eighty years apart, Vivian in Red will swell your heart like a favorite song while illuminating Broadway like you’ve never seen before.

“An entrancing novel that gives readers insight into the Broadway theatrical world in its heyday. It also presents a nuanced picture of a large, unwieldy, but loving family and examines the mistakes people make in their youth that eventually come back to haunt them.” —Library Journal

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1 comment:

  1. This is so spot on! As I started writing my first novel a year ago I was audacious enough to select 15th century Portugal and the associated journeys of discovery as a decor. I found Henry the navigator an intriguing man, little did i know that i would end up studying the war of the roses, the Bourgondian-French conflicts and the Portuguese internal struggles. I too started looking for all kinds of sites. As you say, next came the non fiction books that were written on that age. Many of them were from the 19th century, giving a very coloured interpretation of the era, which gave me much to think about, until I finally found one modern academic book that met my needs. I think I used only 10% from what i learned as I started to focus more on a sailor than the Prince. For that part I indeed have talked to countless friends with true experience of navigation at sea. And yes, I definitely did the abandon-what-is-not-worth it too (I really felt bad about that, glad I'm not alone) and you know what? Even if my novel never gets published, I learnt so much about the time period, about the structure of Europe, the alliances and so on (not to mention English, which is not my mother tongue) that already feels like a success to me! Plus there is that universal part on emotions and relationships which I guess you do know, even if some of the 'background' is unfamiliar...