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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How to be a know-it-all

A couple of years ago, my husband approached while I was reading and sat beside me on the couch. After a few minutes, I looked up. He seemed concerned. "Is there something you want to talk to me about?"

Color me puzzled. "Why?"

He pointed to the book I was reading. The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships

Oh, that. I said, "The only problem we're having is that you're married to a writer."

The truism is to "write what you know." That means it's your job to know everything.

You must become, officially, a know-it-all. Or at least, someone who knows how to find out the things she didn't know she needed to know.

My answer? Self-help books. I've already touted self-help books to become fluent in the way other people manage their relationships, but now I'm suggesting them for everything else too. I read self-help books for helps that I either never will need or hope never to need. Why? Because at some point, one of my characters is going to need it.

Your characters probably had a childhood. If you're mean like me, they probably didn't have wonderful, glorious childhoods. On my shelf are books like Raising Adopted Children, Motherless Daughters, and a half-dozen other books about fatherless daughters, abused children, treating traumatized children, and children of divorce.

Childbirth doesn't have to be all about how your character sailed through with an epidural and push-push-push: how about adding to your character's challenges with books by Ina Mae Gaskin, and then for the meta-analysis of birth, throw in a copy of Pursuing The Birth Machine and Birth As An American Rite of Passage? You may have your own experience with having babies or raising children, but since you need to write what you know, now it's time to know every other possible experience. With more possible choices in mind, you'll know better whether your main character might prefer to give birth unassisted in a tub in her living room.

It goes on and on: Boundaries by Townsend and Cloud for when you write your pushover character. The Art Of Verbal Self Defense books for your witty character. The Sociopath Next Door? The Gift Of Fear? Check out a book about how to run your own business even though you don't own a business. One of your characters might want to.

Moreover, the greater your knowledge base, the more opportunity you have to create interesting situations for your characters. Reading a book on management will give you plenty of examples of how lousy bosses operate -- and you may find yourself filling with ideas for future stories.

Right now I'm reading a book called How Not To Marry A Jerk. (Although I admit I'm afraid I'll discover my husband married a jerk.) Not because I want to get married again, but because I want to learn another perspective on dynamics for my characters' sakes. Someday, one of them may want to marry a jerk. It'll be my job then to know why she does it.

Read. Read fiction, but also read how-to. How to live. Then you too can be a know-it-all.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemyto be released by MuseItUp on September 28th. She is also author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 


Heather Kelly said...

HA! "The only problem we're having is that you're married to a writer."

So much can be chalked up to that!

I love this advice--something I hadn't considered as a wealth of information.


Angie said...

Great idea. When I research stuff other then characters/relationships, I like the childrens non-fiction. It's concise and easy to understand and has all the pertinent information.

Jane Lebak said...

Good point, Angie. I deliberately go for children's biographies when I don't want an in-depth analysis of someone's life and instead just want an overview of what they did and when.

(Eg: children's biography of Mozart, 78 pages. Adult's biography: 900 pages.)

This would totally work for a lot of subjects.

CricketB said...

Even better is when the characters misuse the advice. "Ask your employees how their day is going." Then don't listen. "Ask your employees what their biggest challenge is." Then try to solve it for them rather than support their solving. "Kids will eat what their body needs." Really? "All kids with AS have difficulty doing..." Tell me another one.

Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

What great advice! The Dance of Anger book is one of several I like. I think my favorite was The Dance of Intimacy. I bought it, but then lent it out to somebody, and I doubt I will get it back.

I need to find some books on fostering... it will help with my current revision.

Anonymous said...

Too clever.

As a woman, with opinions on things I know nothing about, I have never considered reading a self help book.

Now I wonder what new and wonderful plot problems these books can inspire.

Stina said...

I do this. My library now thinks I'm in an abusive relationship, have been raped, my teenage daughter is dealing with depression, and one of my kids has cancer. None of this is true, but they are things my characters have had to deal with.

Self help books are a wonderful form of research. Great post, Jane.