Where am I?
Over the years I have often read in books about writing: ‘Write what you know.’ Sound advice, something I’ve done on frequent occasions.
Drawing on your own life experiences can be a very powerful tool to enhance one’s writing. Sharing the familiar can ensure the integrity of your writing. It is, in a way, being true to yourself.
Drawing on what you know is an important consideration when writing a novel, for it will often determine the setting of your story. I usually set my stories and novels in Australia, and specifically South Australia. This is the part of the world I know best. It is the setting with which I feel most comfortable because I know it so well.
The importance of setting
What if you decide to write a story set in another country? Or another period of time? Or on another planet?
That was the dilemma facing me when I started out writing my current WIP, a novel for children set in Nepal. Sure, I had some knowledge of the country, but visiting as a tourist for four weeks is a far cry from being born and living all your life there. It can be even quite divorced from the impressions and experiences of someone who has lived and worked in that country for some years.
As a result of my problem, it was crucial that I either abandon the project or set to and do some thorough research. The concept of a young boy caught in the midst of a civil war would not go away. Stories have a habit of doing that. Layered upon that idea was the friendship he develops with an Australian expatriot boy whose father is working in Nepal.
I have no idea what it is like to live in another country. I have had to draw deep on being resourceful. I am rapidly devouring a series of books written by expatriate Australians, Canadians and Americans (among others) who have lived a significant portion of their lives in Nepal, and especially rural parts of the country. This has been a revelation to me, and I am fearful that the research will take over and prove more enjoyable than the writing of the novel.
It’s something I must guard against.
It’s a fascinating journey on which I’ve embarked.
Searching, searching, searching – doing Research
One of the interesting aspects of writing my current novel is the research that is involved. Normally, especially when writing short stories, I have a vague idea of the plot and characters and just blaze away with the first draft. During rewriting I will tidy up the story and make it work as a story. Editing often tightens up the plot and corrects any spelling and punctuation boo-boos. There is often little scope – or need – for much background research. I usually write what I know, or draw on my fertile imagination to fill in the gaps.
Not so with a novel. With my current work in progress – the novel I’m writing as my thesis paper for my MA – I am expected to show evidence of appropriate research. This is not the way I normally work, so it is stretching me beyond my normal practices. This is good, and is what doing my MA is all about. The writing of specific short stories, poems and essays has stretched my writing skills in amazing ways.
Doing background research for my novel has had a wonderful side effect. It is giving me a deeper understanding of the setting of my novel. More about that in a future post on this blog. All I will say now is that the novel, which is being written with children as my audience in mind, is set in Nepal during the recent civil war. Soaking myself in the culture of the country is proving to be a fascinating experience; so much so I am almost forgetting to attend to the actual writing.
All this research is helping me on my journey. It is a journey of discovery, not only of an amazing culture, but also of finding out the story of my main character. He is based upon a photo I took of a boy during a visit to Nepal in 2006. I wondered: What is his story? In discovering many aspects of the culture, the country, the people and the times in which my story is set, I am discovering this boy’s story. It is a growing, organic world; it may be fiction, but it is becoming a real place for me.
I now have to make sure that the fascination with the research does not take over and replace the writing.
For more articles in this series about writing a novel click here.