Stretching Your Writing Limits

This is going to be a bit of a ramble. I hope you don’t mind, and would appreciate your thoughts at the end via comment.

For the last year or do, I’ve been working on an ambitious project: a series of novels spanning epic concepts of philosophy, religion and mythology, with my friend @sareliz. Both of us wrote first drafts of two chunks of narrative last November as part of NaNoWriMo, then earlier this spring I knocked out a 50K first draft of a third book. As I’ve chipped away at rewrites, however, I’ve become more and more aware of one simple fact: in order to be true to the reality of my protagonist’s world, things are going to have to get a lot darker and more brutal than I ever anticipated, which is going to require a metric f*ckton more research than I’ve done so far.

The book isn’t supposed to be gritty or hard-hitting in a way that features depictions of extreme violence or torture, so there’s also going to have to be a balance stuck between realism and the fantasy world of the series. The more I research, the more I question: can I do this? Have my ambitions gotten ahead of my ability?

This story story, currently planned as the first novel in the series, involves a reporter who travels to a corrupt county to look for a friend and colleague who’s gone missing. As part of my research I’ve been reading about reporters in war zones and oppressive regimes (which plays into another aspect of the series’ overall plot), and with each article I read I realize that the draft i have so far actually features what could be called “danger-lite.” Terrifying things happen to journalists who travel abroad to investigate corruption. They are beheaded, jailed, tortured, ‘disappeared’ and more. The citizens of the countries they investigate are far from immune to brutal treatment, too: look at the kidnapped/murdered Mexican teachers, girls kidnapped and sold into “forced marriages” by Boko Haram, and activists murdered by drug cartels. Even in America, police Senn able to act with near impunity when out comes to summarily executing American citizens in the street.

While there are certainly overlaps in how oppressive regimes the world over treat their citizens and their media figures, (Pakistan and Myanmar are currently in the spotlight on this issue) specificity is key in writing what you don’t know, perhaps top an even greater degree than when writing what you do know. After all, I might take poetic license if I’m writing about a bar in Buffalo or a subway route in New York City, but that’s an informed choice. Blundering the details in a novel about another country or another culture just comes across as lazy ignorance.

Even the small chunks of reading I’ve done so far have highlighted my own ignorance while at the same time pouting my research in stark contrast to lived experience. Reading books like THE BRIEF WONDEROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz, being immersed in a world where a revolutionary leader reigns over the lives of citizens with sadistic whim, is nothing like living under such a regime. ‘They’ say to write what you know, but what chance do I have (thank goodness) to understand the lifestyles of people in those circumstances with any degree of accuracy in fiction? How does someone like me write inclusive, relevant, diverse novels on topics like this without fucking it up royally?

The only answer I have is research.

So I’m trying. Really hard. I’m reading what I can, trying to get a feel for both the human, day to day lives of people living under the repressive circumstances the story needs to portray, but also trying to gain more knowledge of the truly horrifying acts oppressive governments can subject their citizens to. At the same time, Itry to find a way to retain the ability to see the monsters responsible for these reprehensible acts as humans, with motivations that made sense to their own internal logic, because it’s a rare human being who sees themselves as a villain, no matter how vile they might be. I try to think of ways i can portray the horror of human suffering at the hands of others while being honest but while avoiding graphic depictions of circumstances that don’t fit the tone of a series of fantasy novels. And then I question myself and start to feel paralyzed. And then i remind myself I’m still working on a draft. There’s always time for another rewrite.

There are bright spots in my research. My trip to St. Martin last year and the one i just took to St. Thomas both informed me on climates, terrain and cultures that will also figure in to the stories my cowriter and i will be telling. And I keep reminding myself of the importance of this, whole trying not to get to bogged down in the details. But when a simple hike through a national park demonstrates that you’ve completely miscategorized your story’s setting, how can you ever know when you’ve researched enough to get on with the writing? And even writing  this, I cringe, because I feel like I’m wading into waters where it would be so easy to give offense.

They say to write what you know, but it’s also critical that writers be willing to learn what we don’t know so we’re can write accurate, diversity populated fiction in terms of our characters, settings and cultures. Whether it takes the form of readings, conversations or traveling, the only answer to this conundrum is research.

Oh, and asking for recommendations. Anybody got any suggestions on trying material or media I can consume? Please leave them in the comments. Your thoughts would be very much appreciated.

4 responses to “Stretching Your Writing Limits

  1. Christopher Duncan

    Hi Rachel.

    I have two thoughts for you:
    1. Talk with someone with lived experience in a country with a violent regime. Come to understand their life. Walk a mile in their shoes. You’ll gain compassion for them.
    2. See a related movie or two. The Killing Fields about the Khmer Rouge comes to mind.
    My over all thoughts are to expand your research techniques to include more direct experience. Books establish a scrim between the reader and the persons living the life. Movies build less of a scrim. Talking with someone who has lived it makes it real in a very different way. Chris.

    • Rachel / @girl_onthego

      Thanks Chris. I do try to read blogs/talk to people so will keep on with that. And I’ll check out the film you suggest — cheers. And happy holidays!

  2. I have heard of other authors maintaining a relationship with experts during the course of their novel writing, to be able to all questions, get various parts reviewed, etc. This seems like a great way to ensure you are being accurate in certain areas, while taking advantage of years/decades of research (someone else’s). I imagine you have to just find a willing expert to correspond with, perhaps a college professor who had this as his area of study, or one of the authors of the books you are reading, or an actual retired journalist who has been in this type of situation (the latter would provide more immediate, specific details about their particular experience, but probably not have a breadth of knowledge to draw from). I hope this helps!

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