Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Research. Do it.

Any ten-year-old can turn in a pretty reasonable essay about what they did on their summer holidays. (That's a vacation, for US readers.) But you're going to have to do better than that if you want to be a professional fiction writer. Writing about your own experiences can be fascinating if you do it well, but few people in the world have a life so rich, extraordinary, and varied that retelling it can sustain more than one book. They say write what you know: but what you know already won't keep you going and even if you know a lot it'll get stale eventually, so you have to learn to write what you don't know, both in terms of facts and feelings.

Research is second nature to me, as it is to most journalists. When I was a working reporter, I seldom had any idea what I was going to be called upon to cover on any given day, not even within my specialist areas. Like any journo, I was used to starting from scratch on a topic that I knew nothing about and making myself sufficiently knowledgeable about it to have an intelligent and probing conversation with an expert in the subject. Not only did I not have the luxury of covering only what interested me, I didn't actually want to - I wanted to find out something new every day, and I can't recall ever covering a story in which I couldn't find something interesting. And it's the same when I write a book. The last couple of novels I wrote meant I needed to get up to speed on the oil industry, beef farming, and dog training. For other books and scripts, I've had to familiarise myself with everything from neurosurgery and karst formation to neonatal death and cephalopod anatomy, and a hundred other things that I would never have experienced in my daily life.

I'm still surprised and disappointed when readers assume writers just regurgitate their own experiences and never step outside them. Okay, I know some writers spend their lives doing that, but I don't, and nor do many of my colleagues. We actually do a hell of a lot of work (not just reading, either) to inform ourselves about new subjects and unfamiliar areas so we can write meaningfully about them. That's how we write good books. I don't know if this assumption is based on bad English lit teaching, or just a reflection of an education system that emphasises regurgitation of a syllabus instead of research and analysis, but it's very sad. I see the results of it when I meet would-be writers who say they struggle to find something to write about. There's nothing in their heads to spark them. Of course there isn't: all the things worth writing about are outside you. A writer is a lens, not a source. Writing is how you look at the world.

To be a good writer, you need to be both curious about the world and people around you, and self-aware so that you know where the border is between your psyche and your characters'. So get out and talk to people. Find out stuff. Pick up subjects at random and see what's interesting in them. If you're cut out to be a writer, you'll find yourself swimming in ideas and discovering things that you're dying to write about.

© Karen Traviss 2011