Writing about something you don’t know about is dangerous. Every writing teacher harps on this from your first sentence to your last essay. So how do write about things that you don’t know?
If you’re lucky, you’ll have personal accounts from people you’ve met. My first novel — Apple Pie and Strudel Girls — is a fictional tribute to may people I knew firsthand who lived through the the World War II years. My parents and all of the friends, my aunts and uncles and so many others were the young “boys” and “girls” who fought that war.
But my latest novel is a story about Italian immigrants who came to America at the turn of the last century. My grandfather was one of those immigrants and so was his best friend Jan and his wife, Angeline. I remember their broken English way of talking and their big hand gestures, but I was so young when they died, any other memories are lost.
My only recourse to learn about this time in history is to do RESEARCH. I’ll spend months reading journals, books, papers and articles that have been written about the period of time, so I can put myself back in time. But this research only provides a backdrop for the story. Research will never be the story.
The trick is to marry the research with the characters and what they will experience. When I get to this stage of the process, I draw on my own experiences. For instance, I grew up in a gregarious, sometimes boisterous Italian family who were devoutly Catholic. I’ve also been on a ship during a terrible storm. Granted I wasn’t riding in “steerage,” but I felt fear rising in my chest as the 30 ft. waves bashed the ship, when lightning lit up the sky like daylight and the 50,000 ton ship bobbed like a cork in the sea. So, I can write about a fearful immigrant crossing the Atlantic.
Going further, my research emphasized that Italians were very isolated, not only because of their language difficulties, but because of their “neighborhood” mentality — the first generation only recognized the Italians from their own villages. Believe it or not, they didn’t even see other Italians as being part of their group! I’ve felt isolation many times in my life, so I can indirectly relate to what the early Italian immigrants might have felt. I’ve also been the only white face in a black crowd, where I was scrutinized and scorned.
So, you see, even though I didn’t live the life of an immigrant, I can draw from my own experiences to piece together what was happening at the time with the feelings and motivation of the characters.After all, isn’t the essence of a story rooted in the personalities and experiences of the characters–their happiness, sadness, despair, triumphs, frustration, isolation, etc?
So you see, bringing characters to life on the page is much, much more than research. This is where writing what you know comes into play, and I think this is what most people want when they read a good book, don’t you?