Episode 8: Research for Fiction Part 2

On September 1, we welcomed back Mike Long and continued our co-hosting with Kasie and Rex. We also continued our discussion on researching before writing and while revising. Here are the show notes:


Dr. Kasie Whitener, Clemson Road Creative, fiction writer

Rex Hurst, fiction writer and English instructor

McKendree Long, retired soldier and investment banker and author of four novels

Theme for the day

Historical fiction research part 2

Link to the podcast recording


  • Who we are and why we’re here
  • The topic for the week: research for historical fiction
  • Book discussion — currently reading and its analysis through the lens of the topic
  • Craft book discussion — Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird
adult blur books close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Segment 1

Write what you know…

So we’re all authors of fiction and the sage advice “write what you know” is lost on us because:

We write fantasy (Rex and Kasie)

We write history (all three of us)

Or is the advice meant to be about writing the emotions we know, the experiences of longing, ambition, disappointment, loss? Are those emotions somehow universal in a way that transcends the fantasy/history entanglement of “what we know”?

Here are 31 authors from Hemingway to Le Guin on the “Write What You Know” advice. Highlights:

  • It’s the emotion — Nathan Englander
  • You may know dragons — Ursula Le Guin
  • It’s a double helix: one strand what you have experienced, the other what you wish to experience — Mohsin Hamid
  • You don’t know anything. Relate to yourself as a stranger — Toni Morrison
  • You should write something you need to go and learn about — Dan Brown

And that brings us to “Research” which is the topic of the day.

Let’s talk about researching for your novel. When do you start researching? Before you ever start writing? During the drafting process? During revision?

Segment 2

Write what you know, but don’t let that limit your work.

How to Write What You Know and Then Change the Story on WritersDigest.com

  • Take an event in your life as a starting moment for a story.
  • Give yourself freedom to create — change the setting, change the time period, raise the stakes
  • If the characters feel too personal, give them alternate details — an astronaut afraid of heights
  • Don’t be afraid to venture too close to or too far from the truth — let the character’s journey determine the distance from reality

Do you use your real life in your work? How does it fit in? Is it the inspiration?

Zoe Heller says writing what you know doesn’t mean limiting yourself to your first-hand experience. That what you learn through reading and research is also “what you know.”

Are you a subject-matter-expert on a particular event, time frame, or phenomena? How did you become that?

Rex — the Satanic Panic

Mike — post-Civil War western culture

Kasie — Byron’s storied vacation with the Shelleys

Mohsin Hamid says what we know isn’t a “static commodity” it is ever-changing and growing (as well it should). And it changes from telling it, storytelling changes the storyteller.

Have your stories changed you? Has the research you did to support them changed you? How?

Segment 3

What we’re reading — discussed in contest of “write what you know” and/or research required

Mike — Lonesome Dove for the 3rd time — all 900 pages of it.

Kasie — just finished City of Brass which was awesome and a great cure for the book hangover I had after reading Legendary, the second Caraval book.

Since I’m reading YA fantasy, the “what you know” is all emotional. The worlds created by these authors are wholly invented. Though City of Brass seems to work with a vocabulary of djinn — what we think of as genies — and the folklore around their powers. Lots about blood purity, race, tribes, identity, and expectations. It’s interesting to think about whether the author has experience with growing up outside of her genetic culture and then trying to assimilate, which is what the main character is tasked with doing.

Craft book selection for September:

Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird in which she famously says, write your stories; if people wanted you to say nice things about them, they should have behaved better.

She is unapologetic about the “real” stuff she uses in her fiction. I’ve used that line a number of times when I write these almost-true stories.

What I like best about Lamott’s book is that she details a process for building the story piece by piece; she takes everything in parts and by assembling the parts, constructs the whole. It’s a craft approach to writing, thoughtful and measured. It resonated with me.

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