Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How to know what you write

If you are a writer, you’ve heard it, read it, and probably said it at least 1.47 million times: Write what you know.

I cannot stress how important that phrase is. You cannot fudge facts. If you try to write about something you do not know or understand, and you get something wrong, at least one, if not thousands, of readers will know it’s wrong, and you will lose trust with your readership.

This doesn’t mean that if you are a dentist in Kentucky that you can’t write about a stockbroker in New York. But what it means is that you had better actually visited the NYSE, spent some time with a NY Stockbroker, and be well educated about the market and industry trends and jargon. And you had best have that book vetted by someone in the industry, specifically a NYSE broker, to make sure you got it right.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of authors throughout the years. One question I always ask is what type of research they did for the book. No matter what your book is about, some type of research will be needed. None of us are omnipotent; we all need to double-check information. It could be anything from confirming the rates of a taxi cab in LA to taking a judo class so you can accurately describe a fight scene to spending two years poring over historical documents to create a period romance in King Henry’s court.

The key to research is to knowing your source. Let me give you a tip: Wikipedia (along with about.com, help.com and other sites) should not be your go-to sites for information. These sites are edited or written by the masses. Accuracy is debatable and writers’ credentials could be questionable. A person writing about a specific cancer medicine on one of those sites may not have a medical background. They may have simply searched the Internet for their response, and who knows what source they used for their answer. Remember, just because it is on the Internet, it doesn’t make it true.

For example, last night I stumbled across “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” and I couldn’t remember who provided the singing voice for Jessica Rabbit. I knew the speaking voice was an at-the-time unaccredited performance by Kathleen Turner. I figured it would be easier to Google “Singing voice of Jessica Rabbit” to get the IMDB page that go to IMDB directly and take the extra steps to navigate to the correct page. (It’s not that I am that lazy, it’s just that I have horrible Internet access, so the more direct, the better.) Turns out Amy Irving did the singing. But while scrolling down the search results, I was surprised at how many sites credited Jessica Turner as the voice of Jessica Rabbit. One site probably got it wrong, and then the misinformation continued to spread because people did not go to a creditable industry site for the information.

So what constitutes a creditable source of information?

- A person(s) working in the field/ or have been in the situation your character is in

- Official organization/society/industry sites and the people who run them

- Official organization/society/industry journals

- Newspapers and news magazines

- Official documents

For example, if you were writing a story about a woman who discovers she has breast cancer, options for your research could include: visiting a cancer treatment center/hospital; talking to a cancer patient and her family, an oncologist and/or a cancer researcher, depending on your needs; visiting the Center for Disease Control, American Medical Association, Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic websites; reading the Journal of American Medical Association, New England Journal of Medicine, and related articles in The New York Times, Time magazine, and Newsweek.

The point is you have to know the credentials of the person/source from which you are getting your information. Are they the best source of RELIABLE information? They need to know so that YOU can know.

And with due diligence and good research, you don’t have to worry about someone reading your book and dismissing you as someone who obviously doesn’t know what they are talking about, because you will be writing what you know.