Thursday, December 03, 2015

Write What You Know?

Dan Walsh is the bestselling author of 15 novels, including The Unfinished Gift, The Discovery and When Night Comes. He has won 3 Carol Awards and 3 Selah Awards. Three of his books were finalists for Inspirational Book of the Year (RT Book Reviews). Dan is a member of ACFW and Word Weavers. He lives with his wife, Cindi, in the Daytona Beach area where they love to take walks and spend time with their grandkids. Click here to connect with Dan or check out his books.

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Writing a novel is mostly a solitary effort.

A picture comes to mind of an author hammering away on a keyboard all by himself as days, weeks and months go by. It’s an accurate picture for the most part. But for some very good reasons, every writer depends on the help of others.

There’s an old saying, “Write what you know.” In other words, situate your stories in locations and areas of life in which you have some expertise. That might work for a novel or two, maybe even three. But at some point, if an author is being honest, they will come to the end of things they know. What happens then? 

What most do, including this author, is a lot of research. You spend a quality amount of time learning from people who really do know what they’re talking about. In short, you write what others know. The input they provide is invaluable and adds a much-needed measure of credibility and realism to your story. They provide details which would be impossible to obtain without their help.

For my newest release, Rescuing Finley (novel #15), I had a valuable research asset living right inside my home. My wife, Cindi. After spending years taking care of our home and homeschooling our kids, I asked her, "What would you like to do?" She didn't hesitate. She wanted to go back to school and learn how to train dogs. 

So, she did. She wound up graduating from Animal Behavior College with a 4.0 GPA. For the last 4 years, she's trained hundreds of dogs through her job as the Animal Behavior Manager at our local Humane Society. To put it simply, she is a wizard with dogs. She not only can train them to all kinds of things (practical things, not just tricks). She also really understands how they think and why they do the things they do. Her input on Rescuing Finley was priceless.

That's one of the things I love about Research...I get to learn all kinds of new things about a wide variety of topics. And for fiction research, it's not enough to skim over things; you have to study them hard enough that people who read your book believe you really know what you're talking about. Or at least, your characters do ("I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV").

For example, here are some of the neat things I learned about dogs researching Rescuing Finley
  • You can teach old dogs new tricks - That's really just a myth. I've seen it happen with dogs of all ages. Even our own. When my wife was near the end of her schooling, I said, "If all this stuff is really true, shouldn't you be able to fix our dogs?" They were 4 years old then and had some serious quirks. Sure enough, she fixed all of them. 
  • Your dog is not the problem 90% of the time - The problem is mostly us, and the fact that dogs are nothing like people. They don't think like we do and have a totally different way of communicating. These differences can be known and understood. Once they are, it's amazing how much better your dog will behave (and how much happier you both will be). 

  • Most of the reasons people get rid of their dogs are fixable problems - It's a horrible thing to bring a dog down to a shelter because of problems that make life seem incompatible. The truth is, 90% of the problems can be solved by spending time with a certified dog trainer. My wife (and trainers like her) have reconciled hundreds of dogs with their owners.
  • Finally, dogs actually save people's lives - Sadly, 22 military veterans commit suicide every day in the US. Most are vets who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and suffer from PTSD. Many of these men and women can be saved by getting a trained service dog. I watched dozens of videos of veterans who said their service dog was responsible for preventing their suicide. With their dog's help, many are beginning to resume all kinds of activities they had been unable to do before.
These are some of the reason I like research. To me, research is not a "have-to" but a "get-to." I'm really looking forward to all the new things I'll learn as I research Books 2 and 3 in this Forever Home series. So, how about you? Share with us some of the cooler things you have learned doing research for your novel.



4 comments:

Ane Mulligan said...

I'm a huge proponent of write what you know, so I do lots of research to "know" what I'm writing! Great post, Dan. :)

Robin Mason said...

most of my research (which i love doing research by the way) is "google-n-go" even if i ask an actual person. maybe i need specifics on coffee—my sis-in-law is a barista. or knowledge of West Virginia (setting in my recent release) i called on Heather Gilbert and Pepper Basham. but when i needed more specific info on spinal cord injury and recovery and PT, my research had to be deeper. i called on doctor and nurse friends, and finally talked to a couple of physical therapists to personalize my character's treatment!

so yeah, solitary work with some social interaction for good measure, aka research! (love your comment, by the way, Ane!)

Tami said...

When I began my current WIP I knew little about my subject, but I fell in love with the history of a small mountain town that was the third largest city in 1850s California. I soon realized that I knew nothing about the California Gold Rush or Placerville (Old Hangtown), California, but through research I've learned about Chinese herbal medicine, how to pan for gold, the exclusion laws of California in the 1850s, and the fascinating history of San Francisco, Sacramento and Placerville. I've discovered some amazing legends and even learned what's required to exhume a body. It's been so much fun that I can't wait to see what I can learn for my next project!!

Ane Mulligan said...

I agree with Tami about getting a lot of research done on the internet, but if at all possible, try to take a research trip to the area. There is nothing better than getting the actual feel of the area. Smell the air. In some beach towns, the air smells different than others. Some east coast have a marshy scent that west coast ones don't. If we don't get that right...