WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

“We know there are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say we know there are things we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” —Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Department briefing, Fe. 12, 2002

As absurd as this statement sounds, I wish I had written it.  It’s brilliant, in it’s own, Gertrude Stein sort of way.

It gets me thinking about my responsibility as an author.  When I read a book, I trust the author to guide me through an unfamiliar world.  I expect the author to be the authority on his subject.  And doesn’t that seem appropriate:  author = authority? 

So when I catch a mistake in a book or when I see inconsistencies in a film, I begin to feel uneasy.  I lose that comfortable feeling one gets when one is thoroughly immersed in a story.  At that point I usually move on to something else. 

I remember when I wrote a documentary about the International Space Station for the Discovery Channel.  I had written a line about a meteor crater on Earth and the video editor found a crater image and dropped it in.  We didn’t know the image was wrong until the Discovery Channel contacted us, having received e:mails from a dozen angry viewers.  The network made our producer re-cut the piece, drop in the correct crater image, and re-deliver it at his own expense.  It kinda came back to me—as the writer/researcher I was expected to have caught the discrepancy before it went in. 

Beat has a few inaccuracies that got past my research readers, making it through to publication.  The errors amount to a few freeway directions and a geographical mix-up or two, things you wouldn’t notice unless you were a San Francisco local.  But, damn it, I’m writing my books for the locals.  I’m writing them for the specialists.  I’m writing them for the cops that walk the beat.  I want people to read the work and say, “Yes, this is authentic.  I trust this author, I trust this guide.”

The inaccuracies aren’t so terrible, and I can correct them in the second printing.  But it drives me nuts, and it fuels the manic attitude I have about research.

Most everyone here knows the pleasure I get from doing what I like to call “boots on the ground research.”   Sometimes I call it “method research,” or “wallowing-in-research” or “embedded research.”  Others have simply referred to my process as “going native.”

And yes, it is true that I was five months late delivering BEAT because I was lost in the Land of Research, and Brett Battles had to pull me back from the brink and point me in the direction of my manuscript.  So I understand that I can go a little overboard.  At the same time, I can’t write what I don’t know, so if I’m gonna write it, I better know it.

I recently spoke at a Road Scholar event called “The Scene of the Crime” and I chose to discuss how research authenticates an author’s work. 

In preparing for the event I identified seven steps in my researching process:

Internet Research

Book Research

Interviewing Specialists

Boots on the Ground

Novels and Memoirs

Personal Knowledge

Specialist Readers

 

1.  Internet Research

The Internet is a great place to start.  Basic research used to be much more difficult in college, when I’d spend eight-hours digging through dusty periodicals in the university library.  In some ways it was fun, like a treasure hunt.  But it was a godawful waste of time.  Now one fucking keyword delivers a million links and a million points of view.  In BEAT, many critical story ideas began as a basic Internet search.  I was introduced to the organizations Children of the Night and S.A.G.E. (Standing Against Global Exploitation, which I fictionalized as R.A.G.E., or Rallying Against Global Exploitation).  This discovery emerged as a crucial subplot in the novel.  I also learned about the network of underground rivers running through San Francisco, and I learned that some of them actually rise up into the basements of existing buildings.  This gave me the entry point to my climactic action sequence.  I love the Internet.  The Internet is my friend.

2.  Book Research

Books provide a vital bridge from ignorance to elocution.  I don’t really feel comfortable in a subject until I’ve read a book or two.  I’ll give a couple examples:  When I was researching this little known subject called…SPACE…you know, for that Discovery Channel project…I needed to interview astronauts and cosmonauts and program managers and a host of other really bright folks.  NASA had sent me this giant binder of PR material which served only to confuse me.  Too many bits of information.  I remember struggling through an interview with some brilliant scientist when he paused and said, “You really need to get up to speed on this.”  “Yes,” I said, pleading, “Tell me how!”  He suggested I read a book called “Dragonfly,” about the Mir Space Station, which detailed the development of Mir and the relationship between NASA and the Russians.  I read the book and, sure enough, the next time I talked to the man I was up to speed.  The book TOLD ME A STORY, and I remember stories.  It put all those little bits of information into context.  And I love context.

Similarly, when I wrote Boulevard I did not get “boots on the ground” access to the LAPD.  Fortunately, an L.A. Times journalist named Miles Corwin had spent a year with the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division and he documented the experience in his book, “Homicide Special.”  The book became my bible and it let me observe the nuances of life in this elite homicide unit.  It gave an authenticity to my novel that cops recognized as true.

3.  Interviews

I believe we’re about three degrees of separation from everyone we need to interview for our projects.  Case in point—recently I needed a good contact in a European police department.  It seems like an obscure request.  How would I meet someone, and how would I find someone willing to give me the straight scoop and not some sanitized, Media Relations version of the truth?  While doing research for Beat I met an FBI agent who provided great information for the book.  I asked if he knew any policemen in Europe and he referred me to a friend of his who works as a diplomat in the Dutch Consulate in Washington, D.C.  That gentleman, in turn, referred me to a friend of his who not only works in a European police department, but is also a homicide detective and—get this—a published crime novelist and TV writer.  The perfect catch.  Three degrees of separation.  I met with him recently and he agreed to act as my consultant and to read drafts of my next book when I’m ready.

4.     Boots on the Ground

This is my favorite.  I just jump right in.  Steps one, two and three usually lead me to an opportunity.  If I’m researching the coroner’s office, I’ll get an opportunity to witness an autopsy.  If I’m researching the San Francisco Police Department I’ll get the opportunity to walk the North Beach beat, to ride shotgun in a radio car, to visit a crime scene.  Once I was researching the background for a protagonist in a short story and suddenly I found myself in the back woods of Alabama, dressed in camo, on a turkey hunt.  And I’m a vegetarian.  Thank God we didn’t find any turkey.  Another research opportunity placed me in the Navajo Indian Reservation eating peyote with the local medicine man.  Boots on the Ground is where I live, it’s where it all comes together.  It’s where all the really good anecdotes are born.

5.     Novels and Memoirs

I separate this category from “book research” because it serves a slightly different purpose.  In book research I’m looking for specific details.  In novels and memoirs I’m looking for the essence of a thing.  I’m looking for the mindset.  If I were writing a piece set in Germany in World War II I’d probably read Rebecca Cantrell’s “A Trace of Smoke,” “The Diary of Ann Frank,” and memoirs of people who lived through that time.  For Boulevard I read “What Cops Know” to get inside the heads of police officers.  I read memoirs of cops who had careers in the Chicago Police Department, the LAPD and the NYPD.  I let the rhythm of their voices influence me.  I let the parameters of their world define the parameters of mine.  For Beat I read a book called “Sex Work,” a series of memoirs by working prostitutes.  I also watched TV documentaries about addiction and addictive behavior.  The documentaries were like visual memoirs.  All these tools served to fix my thoughts in the realism of the world I would write.

6.     Personal Knowledge

This is what the writer brings to the table without having to do extensive research.  By now many of us already have a working knowledge of police procedure, so we only have to delve into our memories to write the scenes.  If you’ve studied karate all your life then your action-hero protagonist reaps the benefits.  If I had a green thumb I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time researching Abbey Reed’s gardening techniques.  In Boulevard and Beat I captured the world of sexual addiction and the Twelve Step process with such accuracy because I’ve been there.  I wrote what I knew and the accuracy showed.  A person who had a career as a medical examiner feels very comfortable writing a series around a medical examiner.  But writing from personal knowledge alone restricts our ability to grow or to represent characters or points of view very different from our own. 

7.     Specialist Readers

And, finally, when all the research is done and the story has been written and rewritten, I turn back to a few of the specialists I’ve interviewed and I ask them to read the book for accuracy.  This is where the rubber meets the road.  I remember when I gave an early draft of Boulevard to a police officer and asked him to correct anything and everything that seemed inaccurate or seemed stupidly out-of-place.  When he was done he said, “The knife on page nine should be 9 inches instead of 6.”  And that was it.  So, all the book-reading and interviewing and embedding seemed to have paid off.  However, another officer who read the book as an ARC caught a number of jurisdictional inconsistencies that, fortunately, I had time to correct before the book went to print.  That’s why it’s important to go to more than one specialist for that final read-through.

I can do all these steps simultaneously, and I can keep it up, at a slower pace, even as I delve into writing the book.  And, as Barbossa said in the Pirates of the Caribbean, “Argh, they’re really more guidelines than rules.” 

But they lead to great places.  They take the unknowns we don’t know we don’t know and turn them into knowns we know we should know.

I’m sorry if I’ve been absent from the comments this past couple weeks – I’m in full launch mode.  And today I’m traveling, so I’ll check in on the comments as the opportunities allow.  Thanks!

22 thoughts on “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW

  1. CJ

    Great post Stephen. I'm really looking forward to Beat.

    Not everyone is hung up on details. I heard Harlan Coben talking about making up technology that would suit his needs rather than research something plausible for a plot point. I was really turned off by that because I identify with your sense that realism is really important in fiction. Readers internalize many parts of what we write whether we want to take that responsibility or not.

    A mistake slips through now and then, but your effort shows.

    See you in San Francisco.

    CJ

  2. Chuck

    HEY SJS:

    Yeah…several authors delved into this at TF. Several biggies said they regularly make things up, and tell angry readers that it's just fiction. A personal preference I guess. But for me, though still unpublished, I try to imbue my stories with facts where I can. Making up a setting is one thing, and often necessary, but when writing about a WWII era transport aircraft, I try to make sure I know the details about the craft rather than pulling them from my a–.

    Enjoy the launch my friend!!!

    C.

  3. Debbie

    What an incredible post, thank you! When I started my MS I thought I WAS writing what I knew. It's amazing the vacancies I have up there!
    Favourite part of your post-the info on second editions. I guess the first is like a theatrical release. Love the research process too, thanks for sharing. And those glimpses into Beat…I've got to wait how long? Seems like forever! ๐Ÿ˜€

  4. PK the Bookeemonster

    I frequently comment that I read a lot of historical mysteries. Research is very important for accuracy in that sub-genre but truly, there is no way to really verify what we think we know is actually what is accurate in times past. I used to read the crime thru time yahoo group until there was a big debate over a book I really liked. The premise involved the world of cooking in medieval/early renaissance times. The debate involved accuracy of the use of a certain food item. In general, the particular item wasn't introduced in Europe until perhaps later. However, it is possible that the place in question being a port city, it could have been introduced earlier. And on and on. I appreciate the research and the accuracy. I also appreciate that the author uses that accuracy but also that for the purpose of the story they can use what is possible or plausible within what they know from their research.

  5. Robert Gregory Browne

    My friend Tasha Alexander was taken to task by a reader for what the reader perceived to be a historical inaccuracy, when, in fact, Tasha had the facts right. Which just goes to show that you can't really win.

    I'm all for as much accuracy as possible. The book I just finished required a lot of research for historical accuracy, but I also fudged a few things for the sake of story. We're writing fiction, folks, and I think most readers understand that.

    The thing I worry about most is foreign languages. My most recently released book has a lot of Spanish in it. Fortunately, I have a friend who is fluent in the language and he was able to make sure everything looked good. But for other languages, I often use online translation services. Not the instant google translate stuff, but a service where you can upload text and have it translated by a live person for a few dollars. It's well worth the cost.

    I have no idea where I'm going with this comment.

    Congrats on the release, Stephen!

  6. Grace

    Valuable post! I hold off on my research and spin out my 'creative ideas?' first then fill in the blanks. I don't like research and fervently wish I could afford to hire someone to do it for me. But then there's the trust issue — will they get it right? Sigh…

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Wow, fantastic breakdown – makes me feel like a slacker.
    Although I do do all of that, I know. I guess it makes me tired looking at it in black and white.

    Anyway, I think there's another kind of research that I know most of us use, and that's constant random research in the field.

    When reading a newspaper or browsing the Net or wandering around a bookstore or library, I will be drawn time and time again to books and articles and links on certain subjects. Anything to do with the occult. Anything to do with advances in forensics. Statistics on teen suicide. You know what I'm saying. We all do it – we keep abreast of our field – fields, plural – even though we're not criminalists or psychologists or exorcists, we are constantly trolling for information and adding that to our storehouses of knowledge on the subjects.

    Children of the Night is one of my favorite causes – I hope others will check them out and consider donating to help teens escape prostitution: http://childrenofthenight.org/

  8. pari noskin taichert

    Great guidelines, Stephen. Thanks for writing the post.
    Sometimes, we think we know more than we do. I've had readers contact me about minor details, like the type of a refrigerator, and take me to task. I didn't have an expert reader on appliances . . .

    Enjoy the launch!

  9. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    Best of luck with the launch!

    Research shows in familiarity of language. I just finished reading something where the author felt comfortable with describing sailing techniques, but completely out of his comfort zone when it came to motorcycles. Just the words he used and the way he described things felt false, somehow.

    As I keep saying – the secret to research is leaving 90% of it out. Working out what's the important 10% is the hard part…

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks for all the great comments folks! It turns out I have no internet access at all today, so my wife, Ryen, is typing this in for me. Keep up the dialogue. I'll check in with her throughout the day.

    Oh and Debbie, Beat came out Sept. 28th. Thanks.

  11. Debbie

    Blush, I'm so embarrassed. I thought the launch was from the Beat Museum next week. So sorry…ahem, never mind me. Speaking of research, maybe I should pay better attention to details eh?

  12. Spencer Seidel

    Stephen — I'm trying really hard right now not to make a joke about doing method research for a sex-addict main character, FYI. I hope your launch activities are going well!

  13. Allison brennan

    Stephen, I understand about getting lost in research, but not like you! Unless it's a plot critical point, I don't sweat it. it's the research that is necessary for the plot to hold together that I'll work hard on.

    A good friend of mine, who is married to retired beat cop, told me that it's the small details that trip us up, that when I don't know something, just be vague or leave it out. I learned that lesson when I made a guess–one of the things that I didn't know I didn't know–about a Valium prescription, and I was very, very wrong . .. as a nurse told me. I also had a local issue related to Seattle that geographically I got something wrong–that no one could bike from point A to point B even though on my map it looked like they could! (Now, I use the google maps satellite all the time. Love it!)

    The thing is, neither point was plot critical, almost throw away details that sounded good but were irrelevant. Now I know exactly what my friend meant.

    I think I cut corners a bit because I don't have the time to really dive into research, so when I go on my research trips they're not really for one book, but sort of my whole world, and I make contacts with people so that I can ask them questions down the road. Like, I don't need to witness an autopsy every time I write about one, seeing one was enough, but now I have a pathologist I can email with specific questions.

    I don't do the ground research much, so have started setting my books in places I know well (like Sacramento!) . . . still, Lucy's books takes place in DC and surrounds and I am relying on a friend who lives in Georgetown to help with necessary details. I did take a trip to Quantico, and hope I can go back before I set a book there. It'll either be book 4 or 5 that will take place at Quantico.

    Anyway, I think because I write 2 or 3 books a year I don't have the time for research as I would like. But I also absorb a lot of what I read and I've been reading true crime for nearly 30 years–ever since I read IN COLD BLOOD when I was 13 and HELTER SKELTER when I was 14.

  14. lil Gluckstern

    "Beat" has launched itself right to my night table. So I will read without worrying about the "details." Here's hoping all your hard work pays off. Enjoy!

  15. Spencer Seidel

    Debbie — Yes, exactly! Thank you for making the obligatory joke!

    And Stephen, in all seriousness, your dedication to research is admirable, even if it makes the rest of us look bad ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Hey folks – I'm back and at the computer, though I wonder if anyone will check back in so late in the evening.
    I loved all your comments and I'm sorry I couldn't be more interactive with you during the day. Great, great stuff!
    And, yes, I got all the sex humor, Spence and Deb! Research is a bitch, but someone's got to do it. And don't sweat the Beat release date – I've made it a little confusing by calling the San Francisco event a "launch". I'm referring to it as my Northern CA launch.
    It's going to be a fun, wild time in SF. I cannot wait. Cannot, cannot, cannot. I wish I had my youth back – I just don't know if I've got the stamina to party five days straight. But, I'll do my best.
    Thanks again for chiming in!

  17. RDorn

    That was a great post. Are there any other books besides โ€œHomicide Special" that you would recommend (for you genre of writing) under the book research category? Thanks.

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