Prostitution, Or Writing What I Don’t Know

This Parisian street graffiti, which my husband photographed in 2009, reminds me of an author's quest to capture a world and render it in words.

It’s time for another status update on my work-in-progress.

As I’ve mentioned before, the first draft of my new novel, LOST NOTES, has taken me into many unknown places, both in terms of subject matter and setting. I’ve never written historical fiction before. I’ve never done major research. I’ve never written a third-person novel. My other two novels were set in fictional versions of real Oregon towns. This one jumps from a tiny village in France to a transatlantic voyage to the slums of 19th century New York.

Moreover, Henri is my first male protagonist. And at the moment, he’s sleeping in the basement of an upscale brothel. (Well, it used to be upscale. Then the neighborhood went downhill.)

Despite reading books on the subject, I have no idea what a brothel looks like. Smells like. Or how the girls relate to each other. Or what they wear. Or what they call each other. I’m asking myself questions and making up the answers. If they don’t ring true, I try again. Sometimes the writing feels more like puttering and slogging than progress. But the pages are mounting. Even better, the story’s continuing to gain momentum.

Since I started this draft in October 2010, I’ve learned a few important things about writing what you don’t know.

  1. It’s fun to create a world as long as you give yourself enough leeway to invent and imagine. After all, none of my potential readers were alive in the 19th century. So I’m using my research as a trampoline. Not as a cage.
  2. If you’re stuck, look at your last few chapters and see whether those choices have lured you off-track. Are the characters acting true to nature? Do their decisions move the story forward?
  3. Keep your world-building details consistent. I suppose this is especially true of sci-fi and fantasy stories. If you imagine a community, whether it’s set in the future or the past, it needs to feel as real as any other setting.
  4. Write into the void. Fill blank pages. You can clean up any inaccuracies in later drafts, so don’t let a lack of information about a particular topic (say, the lighting devices favored in 1855 Europe) stop you from getting to the end of the chapter.
  5. Put your reader first. I love this quote from Clare Clark, author of THE GREAT STINK and other historical novels, and I think it applies to any novel that involves a lot of world-building: “A novel is not the place to advertise your historical scholarship but to find a place in the imagination that is as informed by fact as it possibly can be.
” A satisfying reading journey is the goal, not showing off how much you know. (The whole interview is here if you want to read more.)

Despite my publishing industry malaise a few weeks ago, I steeled myself and waded into the beginning of my novel. It was amazing to see what I’ve been doing since last October. I have characters, and scenes, and conflicts. I know where the story’s going. I’m in control of the bus, so to speak. As I reread my first seven chapters, I took the parsnip writing challenge and made some of the conflicts bigger and more intense. I have more work to do, but I’m pleased with what I have so far.

It’s still a little unsettling to be writing so far from “home,” but my whole novel is like that. I invented my protagonist’s French town out of Google map images, old postcards and writing, writing, writing, and now it feels real and vibrant. So I’ll get there with these brothel scenes, as long as I give myself permission to keep writing. And revising.

How do you approach writing about what you don’t know? What obstacle(s) are you working to overcome in your work-in-progress?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Plot, Revision, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Prostitution, Or Writing What I Don’t Know

  1. Congrats on all your progress!!! I know “they” say, write what you know, but that isn’t always the most fun, yes? One of my wips is set in Ireland. I found listening to books on tape (or CD) about stories set in Ireland AND with an Irish narrator helped to get my head into the lyrical beat of the language and the phrasing.

    Good luck with your wip, it sounds GREAT!!!

    • Thanks, Paula! Sometimes I’m surprised at how far I’ve gotten in eight months. Making up a setting is really fun but it adds greatly to the amount of creation that’s going on at any given time. Thanks, too, for sharing your books-on-tape method. That’s definitely a great way to listen for language and cadence.

  2. Paula: Try Angela’s Ashes (read by the author, Frank McCourt). It’s wonderful just to hear the way he speaks (and sings, when there are songs — and it’s an Irish novel, so of course there are songs). It’s particularly fun for me, since he was my high school English teacher (when he was just a substitute), and he was a terrific storyteller even then.

    Laura: As I was discussing on another blog recently (I don’t remember where), I try not to do research, but sometimes I have to. How a particular poison works, how an Episcopal church is laid out, how many people a cruise ship holds, etc. Mostly, though, I’m writing in an invented world, so it’s more a question of figuring out, with the resources available, how a school would function, or a hospital, or a newspaper.

    There are no computers or cell phones or (often) regular phones, but I don’t have to research how people lived without those things, because I remember it quite well. 🙂

    • Great recommendation–and anecdote–about Frank McCourt, Anthony. When you get to a piece of information that needs researching, how do you do it? Do you pause to go find the fact and come back to writing?

      I wasn’t brave enough to invent worlds until this time around. I wrote my small-town newspaper novel grounded in the language of the newsroom and what actually happens on deadline, since that’s my professional background. Keeping phones out is an interesting choice and I can see how that decision could accelerate the tension or change the plot.

      • I usually stop to do the research, since (in the case of the poison, for example) a key plot point depended on it and there was no point in continuing in that direction until I knew for sure it would work.

        The no-phones thing is tricky now, since I’m writing the (very complex) resolution of a mystery, with a lot of travel from location to location, and I just realized I’ve dispatched a character to an address that there is no way she’d know. And I can’t just do a cell phone call (“Mulder, this is Scully”) to catch her up. I may have to plot this out on index cards…

        I’ve only ever been in a newspaper office once (NY Times, elementary school class trip, got one row of hot-lead type that I wish I still had), so when I wrote a scene at a newspaper office, I made it resemble old-time movies (and included an explanation of why it was that way).

        • I often stop to do the research, too, although if it’s a minor detail and I can skate by, I wing it to keep moving forward in the story.

          Sounds like you have quite a challenge with the end of that mystery, Anthony! Cell phones can be so convenient for getting your character an important piece of information, but I’m confident you’ll find a solution. And it’ll feel earned, to you and to the reader.

          The New York Times–wow. Great story. My newsroom experience is of the small-town weekly variety, but still quite colorful for a novel setting.

  3. This post comes at a particularly relevant moment to me, because when I’m writing about something I don’t know firsthand – a place, a specific profession, etc. – I tend to become paralyzed by doubt and the work stalls. I spend a lot of time and mental energy worrying that someone who actually lives in the place or works in the profession will read my writing and scoff at how inaccurate or unrealistic it is.

    In this latest novel attempt, I’ve kept my head down and written right through some of those doubts, but I’m about to hit another of those areas in the plot and I was starting to feel those doubts creep up again. Thanks for the reminder to just get the first draft written and worry about anal-retentive accuracy at a later time. Or, never!

    • Hi, Leanne! Yes, I get paralyzed too! For me it’s not doubt as much as “oh no, now what?” I have worried a little about how much I’ve invented, although since it’s 19th century I have a bit of leeway for improvisation. Still, my brothel’s in a neighborhood that’s been written about a lot. (My brothel… that doesn’t sound right.)

      Are you writing a first draft, Leanne? Good luck getting through your next potential sticking point! Just keep going. (Which is advice I need to take today, too.)

      • Yes, I’m writing a first draft (I’m documenting it , mostly as a way to pressure myself to keep it going). It’s actually been going really, really well, primarily because I started out with a real outline this time around. I’ve always been an “Outline what I’m going to write before I write it? I couldn’t possibly!” kind of writer, but since that approach has led to exactly zero finished novels, I thought I’d try something outside my comfort zone. And so far, it’s been insanely successful.

        I’m now at a place where I have to significantly revise a portion of the outline, so I’m anxious to see if my productivity takes a hit, or if I’ll still be going great guns.

        • Thanks for the blog link. We’re in similar places, then, writing into the void and using an outline for the first time! I’ll be interested to see how your journey plays out alongside mine. I have finished two novels, but I was still struggling with how to develop plot until I tried outlining this one.

          • Leanne says:

            I can remember reading articles in writers’ magazines in which the author claimed that writing to an outline was not at all confining but was, in fact, rather liberating. I never understood exactly what that meant and, as a consequence, didn’t believe it. But I guess I’m at the right time in my personal development (better late than never!) to finally get it.

            My previous attempts at novels failed because I didn’t have enough structure in my vision. The reason for that is that I had a hard time maintaining both a big-picture vision of the story and a handle on the details. I never outlined because I have some sort of constitutional inability to think in terms of a traditional outline. But once I saw an example of an outline in the form of a mind map, something clicked and I thought, “Hmm… this makes sense to me. I could do that!”

            And now that I’m utilizing an outline, I am experiencing an unprecedented sense of freedom. Because I have targets, I know where the (admittedly loose) boundaries of my plotline are, and I feel comfortable exploring them in the writing. If I’d had no outline, I wouldn’t have had any idea what boundaries existed and where they might be, and which ones I could fudge on and which needed to be respected. I might have written some great scenes, but they wouldn’t have hung together as a whole.

            Sorry for the long-winded response. Eek!

            • Leanne, I have never written with an outline, but I do see how they can make it easier to write rather than more difficult. I could never write short stories (only novels) until I started writing mystery stories. Suddenly I’ve written twelve of them. The restrictions of the genre (a mystery, a detective, an assistant detective, suspects, etc.) make it easier to write, not more difficult. I can easily imagine how an outline could work the same way.
              I’ve written about this a couple of times on my blog:

            • What you said about freedom really rings true to me, Leanne. I’ve pushed the limits of my storytelling because I can hang my efforts on an outline and see what they’re adding up to.

              And Anthony, good point about genre and form functioning similarly to an outline. There’s freedom in working within a set structure.

  4. Jo Eberhardt says:

    Research can be an incredibly powerful form of procrastination. It’s amazing how much time you can spend trying to find out how much rain you’d have to have in order to crack open a dam across a large river – especially when that dam (and river) are completely imaginary. So first you have to research dams around the world to try to find one that’s similar to the one that you’ve envisioned, and then you get stuck on looking at google images, and then… Well, and then you realise that you’ve just spent your entire allocated writing time doing nothing.

    Sometimes it helps me to just disconnect from the internet (Noooooooooooooooo!!!!!!) when I’m writing, and fill in my WIP with such witty bits of prose as: It had been raining for INSERT APPROPRIATE AMOUNT OF TIME HERE and the water level had reached INSERT ANAL-RETENTIVE MEASURE HERE.

    Sounds like your WIP is going well. It sounds fascinating!

    • I love your dam example, Jo. I definitely procrastinate most when writing a first draft, and research is one of the top offenders. With my last novel, I could sit still and write/revise for hours without a break, but when building new scenes, each piece takes so much thought and work that I end up stepping away mentally.

      There are programs that block your internet but I haven’t needed them (yet!). I’ve heard people talking about “Write or Die” in particular.

      Also, your technique of dropping into all caps so you can fill in the blanks later is what thriller writer Dana Haynes does. His debut, Crashers, is full of technical data, and he said he writes TECH TECH TECH and goes back and searches for those places later, once he’s done the research. I’ve been more inclined to fudge things (like not mentioning what kind of light source is in the room), which’ll be harder to fix on rewriting!

      • Jo Eberhardt says:

        I’ve tried “Write or Die” but just found it distracting.

        I sometimes head up to my local library to write when I’m struggling to do so at home. You have to pay for the internet, but word processing is free. So I don’t get them to enable the internet on my computer, and I can sit there at no cost for hours at a time. Not only do I not have the distraction of the internet, I also can’t wander off to the fridge, do the washing, or anything else that I cna use to procrastinate at home.

        • I’ve written at coffee shops with similar results, mostly when I’ve had a babysitter to stay home with my kiddo. I don’t mind the extra voices although I try to go to anonymous places where I won’t bump into people I know.

  5. Jo: And when you get to be successful, you can hire somebody to fill in those blanks for you. 🙂

    (Not that I know that from experience, of course.)

    And, yes, I agree about the Internet. That’s why I write all first drafts with a pen, on paper, on the other side of the room from the computer.

    • Good point, Anthony! And I respect anyone who writes by hand. I need my computer. It’s part of my brain, it seems. I’m a fast typer, too, from the years in newspapers, so it’s more immediate (for me) to use word processing. Then again, it’s so easy to write anything because I can always fix it. I often think people who write their stories longhand really care for each sentence in a different way than those of us who just tap-tap-tap the thoughts in, hit the delete key occasionally, and then keep going.

      • Hemingway used to write dialogue on a typewriter and description longhand. Once I learned this, I went back and looked, and indeed there are big blocks of description and big blocks of dialogue (as opposed to cutting back and forth).

        He also wrote standing up, which I have never been eager to emulate.

        • Fascinating. I never noticed that. It’s probably part of what we think of as Hemingway’s style. I saw a post over the past few months about someone trying to make a standing desk, but yeah–not for me, either! I much prefer curling up on a chair.

    • Jo Eberhardt says:

      Really? Someone else could fill in those blanks? Where do I get me one of these people? Oh… ou said I had to be successful first… 🙂

      I’ve recently (over the last 2 weeks) started trying to write longhand for the first time in 15 years. I found it really difficult the first few times, but apparently it’s just a matter of habit. I’m actually finding it quite refreshing.

  6. Wow, I’m so glad I called you — WHY DIDN’T I DO IT SOONER? This blog is fantastic, full of stuff I totally need to know about. Thanks!! I’ve put you in my reader, too!

    • I’ve just been looking at your blog, Shasta! It’s amazing, and your kiddos are gorgeous. I can’t wait to meet them in person and talk more about what you guys have been going through. You’ve lived a whole lifetime in this past year. And I can’t wait to hear more about your novella. Whoo hoo!

  7. yuvi says:

    Great post, Laura. I like how well you capture many of the scary things (and the things that can intimidate a writer) when writing about a different time or place. The whole first draft (of my novel that takes place in 1930’s Georgia), I was locked up in fear about “getting it wrong”. As a result, the draft lacks energy. This second draft, I’m giving myself far more allowances… to just tell a story with a compelling voice… without so much concern about each paragraph getting fact checked right away. Much more freeing to write a draft this way…

    • Thanks, Yuvi, for your great comment! I totally relate to the fear of “getting it wrong” and I occasionally wonder if I could pull this novel off as a faux-historical, set in a slightly different world than the actual 19th century, to cover any mistakes. That’s not very realistic, but when I panic, I consider that option. Sort of like Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell putting out a whole different history of England (where there’s magic!).

      It’s so important to give ourselves allowances, especially when writing first and second drafts. There will be plenty of time for fact-checking later. (If we can remember which facts we half-invented… uh oh…)

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  9. I had another thought about this, and didn’t want to write the world’s longest blog comment, so I wrote a post on my blog: 🙂

    • Very cool, Anthony! (And also thanks to Jo, who linked to this post over at the Happy Logophile.) If you’re just reading this post and these comments for the first time, feel free to jump in with your own thoughts. Let’s keep the conversation going!

      • There is probably no more vexing instruction given to aspiring writers than “Write what you know.” It is profoundly true and also very misleading. If I were ever teaching a writing class, I might write those four words on the blackboard at the beginning of the first class and then we could spend the whole session (or two, or more) in discussing them.

        • That’s definitely enough material for a few classes, or even to build a seminar around, studying examples of authors’ work alongside their lives, and using that lens as a tool to examine their artistic choices from a new perspective.

          • Jo Eberhardt says:

            There’s one thing that I do think you need to know, though, and that’s the emotional state that you’re writing about. I don’t mean that you have to have experienced the same events or level of emotion (or there would be many fewer thrillers on the market!), but you need to have experienced that emotion to some degree and be able to draw aand extrapolate on it.

            Character being chased by a serial killer? I remember when I was 7 and got lost in the shopping centre for ages (5 minutes) and I was terrified that I’d never see my family again. Character finds her husband murdered? I remember when my first pet died. Character wracked by guilt over needing to betray one friend to save another? I remember when I stole a pack of gum to impress my friends.

            If you’ve experienced some form of the emotion, as a writer you can extrapolate on it and make it real. But if you’ve never experienced it in any form, you’re basing your writing so much on other things you’ve read or watched that it usually comes off as trite and unvelievable. (Ever reread any of your “deeply emotional” writing from when you were a tween? Or is that just me?)

            So I don’t think it matters that you’ve never experienced life in a 19th century brothel, and readers won’t care how accurate your description of the prostitutes’ working environment is, as long as your characters feel and act in an accurate and believable way.

            (Sorry about the rambling post. It’s 4:00am and I’m not at my best this early, but I was thinking about this all night…)

            • That’s a very good point, Jo. Facts are important, but probably less important than emotional authenticity. I think what readers respond to in fiction is emotional “truth.” There’s a difference between historical or factual authenticity and believability. You could research 19th century brothel life vigorously for six months and still not write a novel that was believable if your characters’ emotions don’t ring true.

            • Yuvi Zalkow says:

              Jo — That is a great summation of it: “There’s one thing that I do think you need to know, though, and that’s the emotional state that you’re writing about.” Just like the over-used line “show don’t tell”, I think the over-used line “write what you know” is so easy to misunderstand. There’s some grain of truth in that statement, *and* there’s something very misleading in that statement. I think Jo captured the essence of the important part of “write what you know”…. you need to know the emotional truth of your characters, not necessarily by first-hand experience, but you have to know it deep enough that your readers really believe in your story and in your characters.

            • Wonderful insights, Jo, especially for 4 a.m.! Your list of extrapolations is priceless–perhaps the basis for a future blog post at The Happy Logophile? And yes, I have a lot of tween “novels” and poetry, all of which proves your point about needing to have experienced something real before trying to write about emotions.

            • “There’s one thing that I do think you need to know, though, and that’s the emotional state that you’re writing about.”

              Jo, you’ve put your finger on something important. And the thing which strikes me is that these things are the ones that change much more slowly than the settings and transportation and communication.

              Say you start to think that your husband/wife/partner is cheating on you. You’re not sure, but you’re suddenly suspicious. That probably feels about the same now as it did a hundred years ago, or two hundred. Your options may be different than they would have been a century ago, the clues you got might be different, your next steps might be different, but the feeling in your gut is probably about the same.

              I was critiquing a YA novel for a friend recently, and he described high school cruelty as it practiced today. Very different technology than when I went to high school (some decades ago), but the cruelty and the hierarchy and the cliques are pretty much the same.

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