Write What you Know, Not what you Think


Just the facts, Ma’am.  Let’s preface a discussion of character description and development with a short digression on facts and the writer’s Life experience (or staggering lack thereof).

In fact (so to speak), this is one of my major gripes about some authors and what must be a pathological hatred for research (or  perhaps it’s due to a very sheltered life). I really enjoy ‘boaty’ stories; so much so that I will  do just about anything to include one or more ‘boaty’ scenes in everything I write. Admittedly, I have (so far) avoided small plastic boats floating in a bathtub, but I am tempted to slip that into my next novel. Somehow.

But some writers will go to amazing lengths to avoid researching terminology when writing about stuff they don’t know. In a rush to complete a scene they will throw terms around without any regard for proper usage, when all it would take is a brief phone call to  a friend in a relevant trade or industry to verify proper terms to describe what the author wants to include in a scene. It’s not difficult, folks. Don’t be lazy.

Readers will become so upset over improper usage of terms (nautical or otherwise) they will throw your “Great American Novel” directly into the garbage. Certainly, if they do not trash the author to their friends they will never, ever recommend him or her to anyone.

Research is King, boys and girls. Don’t assume you know what you’re writing about; KNOW it. Don’t assume that because you are you that you have all of the facts at your fingertips – you do not. If you don’t handle firearms every day or every week, don’t write about them without some serious research. If you don’t own a boat, or go boating with friends, or build boats, go speak with someone who does before you write a novel with a boatbuilder or boat owner or whatever. If you don’t know about aircraft or flying, don’t write about it.

Research is KING. Research – or the embarrassing lack thereof – will make you or break you as an author. Period.

So now we can deal with character description and character development. Believe it or not, this is very much related to my little diatribe above.

Some authors are plot-driven writers. They come up with these intricate, twisted plots and just have to put them down on paper. They become so wrapped up in their plots they have no time or interest – or space on the paper, for that matter – for their characters. As a result of this concentration on plotting, their characters appear as cardboard cutouts of human beings.

They wind up with totally one-dimensional, and intolerably uninteresting characters. Everything in the story is all about the ‘Plot’ and little or no attention is paid to the characters or their interaction with one another outside of the plot line. The reader gets the idea that the author is completely lacking in human understanding.

People are complex critters; they are driven by fear, desire, inadequacy, unthinking lust, addiction, loneliness, hopes and dreams, desperation, you name it. And all at the same time. Perhaps a little introspection is in order. Perhaps a bit of observation of the behaviour of others.

Again; write about what you know, not about what you think you know. If you don’t know about people and what drives them to make the decisions they do, or say the things they do, or the way they say those things, don’t write about people. Write tour guides, or advertising copy.

That may be a  bit harsh, but write about what you know. And if you don’t know how one of your characters should react in a scene, ask someone. Ask two or three people – of any sex – how they would react in that situation, and ask them to be honest when they tell you. I certainly am not suggesting you take any course in psychology or sociology; heaven forbid.

But don’t be afraid to reveal your characters as real human beings facing real situations. Even if your novel is set aboard a starship in the Crab Nebula (lovely place – lots to see and do there), they are still human beings (well, some of them are, anyway).

People want to read about people. You do yourself and your tale and your reader a disservice if you fail to provide enough information about your characters for the reader to see them as human beings.

I do not recommend that you describe each character in complete detail at the beginning of your tale – fifteen pages of character description is a bit much for any reader. But do provide a brief physical description, a brief revelation of what they do and where they come from (background). Just enough for the reader to build an image of that person, and that will convince them to become invested in your tale.

The reader comes to know your characters as people, and that helps him or her to ‘suspend his disbelief’. And through the course of the story, reveal – through the characters actions and dialogue – who he or she is and what drives them.

“Show, don’t tell,” is the key to interesting writing. Show, through action and dialogue what is going on, who is doing what to whom, and why. Write actively – not passively. Stay away from the ‘have had’s’  and ‘had done’s’ and ‘had been’s’. Forget passive anything in your writing.

And the same holds true with your characters. Reveal them through their actions and their speech patterns. You don’t need multiple paragraphs filled with a narrative about why someone is doing something or ‘had done’ something. Historical narrative is guaranteed to put your reader into a coma. Keep it active – keep your writing here and now. That will keep your reader involved in your characters and your tale.

About Gary Showalter

Gary Showalter was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. He lived in Aruba, Florida and the Panama Canal Zone before joining the U.S. Army during the 1960s. Following his discharge from the Army, Mr. Showalter picked cotton in East Texas, baled hay in Ardmore Oklahoma, sold light bulbs in Los Angeles, California, and built cattle pens in Fallon, Nevada (during a blizzard, of course). After settling in Atlanta, Georgia, Mr. Showalter worked as a professional gardener before turning his hand to furniture making. In 1981, he moved to Israel, married, and raised four children while working as a furniture maker, silversmith, goldsmith, and ornamental wood turner. He served in the Israel Defense Forces Reserves for sixteen years, and when not on active duty he worked in government and private security. He has also served in senior management positions in two software development companies in Israel. During his time in Israel, Mr. Showalter published articles dealing with international terror and the Israel-Arab conflict in the Jerusalem Post, Israel national News and several political science web sites. Mr. Showalter returned to the United States in the fall of 2003, to care for an elderly parent. He published his first novel, “The Big Bend”, in the fall of 2008. His second novel, “Hog Valley”, is now in print. Mr. Showalter's third novel, “Twisted Key”, was published in the fall of 2011, and his fourth novel, "Lonesome Cove" is now available in Kindle format and should be published in paper near the end of 2012. Those words were written a few years ago. Frankly speaking, the literary well has dried up. I now live in Dunnellon, Fl, where I amworking as the caretaker on a horse farm and looking to build a workshop here on the property where I can get back to building furniture. With any luck I will be sinking piers some time early in November and hope to have the floor joists ready for flooring by the end of the month. I'll get back to you on that.
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5 Responses to Write What you Know, Not what you Think

  1. Sara Flower says:

    This is what stops me from writing a true historical novel. So much research. Great post! It’s so true that readers want a story that has fleshed out characters.

  2. Absolutely! Research is key! For a reader, anything that doesn’t quite make sense, stops the flow, and too much of that will have the reader putting the book down. For the writer, it makes you appear less serious about your craft!

    • Not only does lousy research brand you as a fool, it tends to really tick off your readers. Then they toss your stuff and start to buy another author’s work. Lousy research is contraindicated, you might say… ;- )

  3. jumpingmonkey07 says:

    Some terrific points here, Gary! I hope that you keep writing these “teaching” blogs. I am taking notes (hope you don’t mind). I wanted to share with you that -in depth research, great character development, and marvelous scenery- are a few very important reasons why Barbara Delinsky is my favorite author! She is an amazing writer. I have been following her work for 10+ years.

    I have learned that I can not write a thing without research, no matter if it’s a short-story or what have you -it is the golden key. I love that you express “show, don’t tell” about the good character building. I struggle with this a great deal when I write.

    • Hi, Diane. Thanks very much for your comments.

      Just about everybody who writes has problems with character description. Actually, with descriptive narrative, period. Keeping it on point without going way too long and detailed is vital if you ever hope to move your story along. The writer should aim to give the reader just enough description to allow him or her to build an image of the character (or describe the scene) in his own mind. You as the writer should never try to ‘paint the picture’ for the reader; just him the colors he needs to do it for himself. That allows the reader to become invested in you as a writer right along with your story. You, in effect, allow the reader to write the tale with you.

      I’ll have to steal this put it into my next blog on characters!

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