Tip #5 in the 52 Ways Not to Get Published series
There is a common saying that you should write what you know. It always makes me a little nervous when I check out the rows and rows of mysteries at the library. There must be a lot of criminals running around with laptops and literary agents.
Most of us live boring lives (if we’re lucky.) We don’t have jobs that take us across the world on adventures. We don’t have plot twists or evil villains or people dying violent deaths in the apartment next door, encouraging us to become amateur sleuths. We’ve never been on a spaceship, battled a troll, romanced a baron, or traveled in time. Evidence would suggest that writers are not writing what they know, at least in the sense of story lines.
What we really need to know are those little details that put flesh on the story. They are those intriguing places, three-dimensional people, and realistic situations that flavor our plots. They can bring a story to life or, used incorrectly, can kill our credibility.
Not long ago, I watched a whole documentary series on gods and goddesses from the History Channel (yes, it’s TV, not a book, but humor me here.) About halfway into the series, the narrator made the claim that the Norse goddess Freya was the sister of Thor. Wrong.
Granted, not everyone is a huge fan of Norse mythology, and there might have been a few watchers who didn’t notice this glaring error. Not only is Freya not Thor’s sister (she is the sister of Freyr,) Freya and Thor belonged to two different warring groups of gods that exchanged leaders as part of a truce. So, not only are they not siblings, they aren’t even shirttail cousins.
Tutorial on Norse pantheon aside, my point is that after this huge factual error, I had no faith in anything else the show had to say. I lost interest when the credibility was shot.
Whether it be through personal experience or intensive technical research that would impress Michael Crichton, you have to have your facts straight. Not everyone will catch your historical inaccuracy or that you placed the window of a known restaurant facing the wrong view of Main Street. But those who do will no longer be captivated by your story, even if only for that moment of confusion when they discover your error. At best, you’ll lose some credibility. At worst, you’ll lose your readers.
The risk is large. If you are writing a novel set in Boston, you are probably going to attract Bostonian readers. If your plot involves an accident at a huge bio-chemical lab, you may catch the eye of bio-chemists. The saying really should be, “read what you know.”
Yet for those of you who are on my 52-step path to not getting published, these errors can be a huge tool. For best results, set your novel someplace you’ve never been. Explore this setting early on in the manuscript, preferably in the first chapter to establish from the outset that you don’t know what you’re talking about. If you are writing fantasy or science fiction, the task is more difficult, but it can still be done. Internal inconsistencies in the world you create will have the same affect.
In the end, you’ll save yourself a lot of time of unnecessary research and the huge hassle of dealing with publication. It will open your schedule to wander the aisles of the library and scoff at those other authors who have never been to another planet either.