If you’ve spent much time hanging around writer clichés, then you’ve heard the stupid nonsense “Write what you know”. It’s not that knowing what you’re writing about is nonsense. That seems reasonable enough. But people who write badly, or who don’t even write at all, will use that phrase to mean “Limit yourself” or, in the expanded version, “Pretend that with your limited talent, you can turn your dull life into something worth reading about.”
Had Shakespeare taken this advice, there would be no books in the library about the sources he used for writing his plays, nor would there be a play called “Hamlet”, since Shakespeare was neither a prince nor Danish. Stupid Shakespeare.
In reality, writers often do research, and then they write what they know, because now they know new stuff. Some writers, who actually have both time and money (I know—I can’t picture that either) will even fly to other countries to do research. Here in my limited world, we take a Saturday that suddenly turns out to be free because we went grocery shopping the day before, and we drive somewhere close.
About two hours southwest of Atlanta there is a little town called Warm Springs. The place acquired this name because—are you ready?—there are springs there that bubble up with warm water. Back in the 19th century people decided this warm mineral water might cure things. The town is famous now, to the extent that it is, because in 1924, Franklin Delano Roosevelt went there, before he was President, hoping to find relief from polio. Later he built a house and went there repeatedly after he was elected President, so eventually his small house became known as the Little White House. He also died there.
For the book I’m currently working on, Moonapple Pie, I’ve gotten the notion to briefly include Roosevelt as a character, more of a secondary character, in conversations with one of my real protagonists. I sort of figured, well, as long as he’s in Georgia anyway. And I want to set some scenes of my book in that little house in Warm Springs, so I knew at some point I’d need to go see it. This past Saturday, one of the coolest days we’ve had this fall, I went to Warm Springs.
I don’t know how many people go there to visit that little house, but Roosevelt seems to still have a huge influence on the town. Granted, it’s a small village. Downtown is one block long. I saw an alley between two buildings, fixed up nicely and called Eleanor’s Alley. Across the street was a store called Delano’s something or other, I forget exactly. The restaurant downtown where I had lunch was decorated with many large black and white photos of Roosevelt. (Lunch was southern cooking buffet, as in fried green tomatoes, black-eyed peas, biscuits, and so on.)
A short distance down the road from the center of the village is the estate, if one might so call it, of Roosevelt, consisting of his little house, a guest house and house for servants, both quite small, and now with an added museum. I had two purposes in going there: (1) to generally learn whatever I might, as some things could be useful and you don’t necessarily know what they will be, and (2) to inspect the room in the Little White House where I want to set scenes of my book, to make notes of what the place looks like and what it might have been like to be there.
As an example, I noted that there is a stone fireplace that runs from floor to ceiling, and on each side of it are built-in book cases. I might use that information simply as a description of the place, to give a sense of the room, or I might decide to have a fire burning or someone will take a book down from the shelf. As a different example, on entering the house through the kitchen (as tourists do now), one comes through a little pantry sort of area where all the glassware is stored. I had been thinking that my character might be asked to get President Roosevelt a glass of whiskey, and if I end up doing that, now I know where she’ll get the glass.
I also think going somewhere provides a sense of a place that you don’t get otherwise, such as the feeling of the wooded hillside, the small towns in the area, or the agricultural and rural nature of the region. For that matter, there is a sense of the house itself, with its dark wooden interior, or on the outside seeing the Marine sentry guard posts that were used at the time, which I probably wouldn’t have given any thought to if I hadn’t gone there.
To the extent that I’m able, I’ve always done this kind of research, which I think is important. Twenty years ago, when I first began working on the book I’ve just finished (Birds Above the Cage), I visited both a strip club and a monastery, as I use both of them as settings in that novel.
I’ve also learned, I hope, that in doing research I have to be careful not to let what I learn take over the book and overwhelm it with detail. That’s definitely been a problem for me in the past. So maybe I’ll leave out the Marine guard posts. I’ll just keep the little glass of whiskey.