Monday, April 12, 2010

Things Writers Need to Know


Life of a Writer Department

One of the things that non-writers (and sometimes beginning writers as well) don't understand about writers is the sheer volume and randomness of things you need to know about.  I'm not talking about storytelling tricks here, or rules of grammar, or the etiquette of the publishing industry.  I'm talking about real-life things, the sort of things that will come up in your story, or that your characters will encounter in the course of a novel.

These are the sort of things you take for granted.

Some of these things can be pretty esoteric.  You may need to know what the view from the pilot seat of a US Marine hovercraft looks like,  what equipment an Oregon smoke-jumper might strap on before leaping out of a plane, or the shift pattern for an exotic Italian super-car, or what it's like to walk into the delegate's entrance at the United Nations, or six ways a martial-artist might respond when attacked with a folding chair.

Some of them are far more mundane.  I can recall multiple occasions (to the point where it's almost become a party game) when male and female writers sit around and compare notes about how people of their gender behave in public restrooms.  This is a far more complex and fascinating subject than you might imagine, and subject to endless variation.  For instance, how people behave in the bathroom of a posh night-club or a gay-bar might differ considerably from how they behave in the trucker's bathroom at a truck-stop or a subway station in a former Soviet-bloc country.  It's armchair sociology at its most entertaining, and of the sort that only writers would feel comfortable discussing in a public place.

Yes, these bits of information may seem trivial, but sure as you get even the smallest detail wrong, some reader out there is going to notice and get kicked out of the story.  Worse, they're going to let you know about it.  So you research odd stuff in the course of writing, and you keep your eyes open for useful bits you can weave into a story to increase the authenticity.  One of the tricks of writing is that if you get a few obscure things right, and the reader notices, they're much more willing to trust you on the details they're less certain about, sometimes to the point of believing what you've written even when it conflicts with their own experience or knowledge.

After a while of doing this thing, your brain become attuned to esoteric information that be useful in writing some day.  When you stumble upon them in your research, or in your day-to-day activities, they stick out like a shiny pebble on the beach.  You can't look away, and sometimes you just can't resist bending over to pick them up.

Here's the random example of this that prompted today's post.  I was looking at something entirely unrelated on YouTube (a romance book trailer I think) when something on the suggested video bar catches my eye.  I glance it it, think, "hmmm, that could be interesting, but probably not useful" then look away.

Then I look back.  When will I ever see something like this again?  What if I need it some day.  Will I be able to find it, or something like it?  But I can't imagine when I'd ever need it.  Look away.

But if there's very small odds that I'll ever need, it, there's a much greater chance that somebody I know is going to need it.  I know lots of people writing romance, fantasy, historicals.  Surely one of them will find it useful.  I should look just to see if it's informative enough to pass along...

What am I talking about?  A tutorial video (aimed at brides, or maybe wedding planners) on the mechanics of wearing a hoop-skirt.  Not the sort of thing guys are supposed to be interested in, but hey, I'm a writer...

So I click on it.  And I'm a little embarrassed, but then the introduction tells some of the issues that will be covered, and there, they have me.  How to deal with the hoop skirt in -- the bathroom!  It must be shared!  Trouble is, how?

My first instinct is to post it to Twitter, but that will never work.  Not everyone (or even most people) reading it will be fellow-writers who will understand.  How do you post this thing without looking like you're either insane or some kind of perv?  It needs context...  Thus this post.

So here, fellow writers, horrified non-writers, and the idle-curious, is Hoopskirt 101.  After all this, I hope to hell that somebody finds it useful!

If you found this site useful or informative, your donations and feedback encourage us to keep posting.  Click the button below to make a donation.  We appreciate it!


  1. I just corrected a typo in this where I put "publish restrooms" in place of "public restrooms." How's that for a Freudian slip?

  2. If nothing else, this tells me that if I ever write about a woman wearing a hoopskirt, I'd better do some research, at least asking a few women about their experiences.

    Quite a comical video, as well.

  3. I'm working on several YA proposals right now with YA protagonists, and assuming any of them sell, it's going to be intimidating writing in a tight, female viewpoint.

    I'm not sure I'd even consider it except that I got lots of fan mail from teen-girls on my "Generation X" novels appreciative of my female characters in those.

    But it will mean research, and asking the occasional awkward question of my wife and female friends!

  4. I have to agree. In the last manuscript I completed, I had my MC buy a gun, I don't own one myself, but I read and read about it. When my secretary read the manuscript, she confessed she was now afraid of me, because I was a gun expert. Thank you, expert websites and authors. :)