Write What You Know—But What If Your Knowledge Hits a Wall? By Brad Windhauser
Write What You Know.
I interpret this oldest-of-writing adages a few different ways. First, I believe it encourages me to explore the things that matter to me. Second, it suggests that I impose my world view on my work—my truth, basically. Now, impose has a perhaps negative connotation, but, like it or not, writers do this every story.
How we understand the world is often filtered through our interests, and most famous writers have a small cluster of interests that they use to populate their stories. For example, very few Hemingway stories operate without fishing, drinking, bull-fighting, war, hunting, or a flawed romantic relationship. He situated his work in one (or more) of these areas because he understood them.
This does not, however, mean that you are restricted to your areas of interest in your work. So what do you do if a new/foreign subject arouses your interest enough to explore in a story? Research becomes your friend, and it’s necessary in order to understand the elements of your story with which you are unfamiliar. The key is always to figure out just what you don’t know.
My forthcoming novel The Intersection provided just such an opportunity.
I was driving in my neighborhood one day (a gentrifying section of Center City Philadelphia) when a bicyclist flew past me on the right side of my car—just as I was about to turn. Since there are many negative opinions about gentrification—some of which I felt as a new resident of this neighborhood—I wondered what would happen if an accident involving a white driver—someone like me—and a black bicyclist—the one who passed me—inflamed these tensions. This kernel of a story jump-started my novel. In order to flesh this idea out, I had to brainstorm—who would be involved or affected by this story, in addition to the driver and the bicyclist?
Thus began my research.
I paid closer attention to my surroundings—who drove around, who walked the streets? Where did they shop, where did they spend their daily routines? I needed a better sense of the neighborhood residents. I needed to know who benefited and who lost with gentrification. This better informed the types of people I needed to better understand through research.
For me, the task with character research isn’t about getting the character right it’s avoiding getting them wrong.
Although there are several ways to conduct research effectively, I was not inclined to conduct a series of interviews with residents—I was not out to tell specific stories of my neighbors—rather, I needed a good sense of how people felt in general. So I combed recent newspaper articles (using Google) to get a sense of the stories that affected the area and how people interviewed responded—these provided a sense of particular sentiments, things with which people were happy, angry, etc. I also found an oral history of a gentrifying neighborhood—The Forgotten Bottom—in Southwest Philadelphia (near my intended setting). This gave me history to work with. I also found a few books on gentrification—so I could understand historical patterns in various cities (such as Pittsburgh)—as well as immigrant narratives, which proved to be a component of the gentrification story. This work provided a foundation for the people I went on to create informed by a sense of their general backgrounds.
Then I had to think about areas or locations that would bring these people together. These I could observe and take from them what I understood as important rather than what a writer told me mattered (like in a textbook). I started attending community development hearings and general monthly meetings held by the neighborhood association (SOSNA). This gave me a sense of how people comported themselves and how well people meshed or isolated themselves. Because I had been building a sense of my characters, I imagined how they would operate in such a setting.
By the end of my research, I had a good nucleus around which I could develop fully realized characters. Sure, the shaping continued through drafting and revision, but all the work started with the research.
Eventually, I wrote this story: When a white driver critically injures a black bicyclist, the residents in a tense, gentrifying South Philadelphia neighborhood can’t decide whether to unite, hide, or explode. Ms. Rose wrestles with ways to effectively organize the community and still be true to the neighborhood she fears may have outgrown her. Carol Jones, the mother of the bicyclist, is drawn back to the neighborhood she fled years ago for posh suburbia and finds roots deeper than she realized. Michael, the driver and recent home owner in the neighborhood, must conquer his guilt over the accident while struggling with personal betrayal. By allowing strangers to help him, he discovers ties he didn’t know he deserved. Their intersecting lives test the neighbors–established and new–in ways they never expected.
At the end of the day, when you conduct effective research, you increase what you know.