“Write what you know”. Every young writer will hear this at least once in their life, and its central precept—to write about things you can express authentically—is sound advice. The trick is that following this advice requires, in part, not following it. It’s a common trap for writers, and one that Dr Shady Cosgrove has to navigate in the classes she teaches at UOW. Part of the solution is expanding ‘what you know’. In short, research.
It sounds unglamorous compared to indulging your imagination, but it can be as adventurous as the writing itself. In Shady’s first novel, She Played Elvis, the research is the story: an autobiographical account of a journey to and across the US, a trip to connect with her North American past and the late, great, Elvis Presley, culminating with a pilgrimage to Graceland. It’s an intensely personal story that seems a solid endorsement of “write what you know”.
But then, her next novel: What the Ground Can’t Hold, a story of intrigue, death, disaster, and the past haunting the present, set against the backdrop of Argentina’s towering icy mountains and the spectre of its Dirty War. It’s more ambitiously made up than her first book—but that doesn’t mean it’s less real to the reader. The secret to pulling this off is simple: do the leg work.
Let’s start with that idea: “know what you write”. How would you explain this piece of advice?
A lot of writers will advise you to ‘write what you know’—and it is important to have access to the detail needed to make something ring true—but the trouble with only writing what you know is it can be very limiting. And frequently we’re too close to our lives to write about their events with any objectivity. Of course we think it’s interesting, it happened to us! Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky (2007:1) says to ‘know what you write’ and I think that’s far more useful.
If you’re going to write something set in the streets of Kings Cross, you need to know what the streets of Kings Cross are like. You need to know what kind of garbage is falling out of the trash bins, you need to know when the markets are on, what the air smells like, which bars are open the latest. You might not use all of that detail in the story but you need to know it. You need to prove to your reader that your narrating voice knows this turf. The reader wants to be convinced but they’re smart. They’ll call you out as soon as you try to fake anything.
The big irony with fiction is that you’ve got to have your facts right.
Did you have to perform any research for She Played Elvis?
For She Played Elvis, the research trip is the story. I took notes and lots of pictures on the trip, but I still had to reconstruct it after the fact and sometimes there are details (what was the curb like in Las Vegas, what was the parking lot like at Graceland?) that I really had to reach back into my memory for. Even though I'd been there, I still felt like I had to recreate it and so I searched for images online to back up what I remembered.
How do you advise students on what stories are theirs to tell—one could argue that Margaret Seltzer and James Frey followed Lobanov-Rostovsky’s advice in fact, if not in spirit.
True, true: look, with regards to what stories students should tell, it's really their call. Sometimes I write a story from personal experience and it’s way too laboured because I’m too close to the action. Other times, stories from personal experience rush out in one draft and work because I have the background that gives me the important details. I think the important thing to remember when you’re writing stories (personal or not) is that it’s the story being critiqued, not the writer.
When do you think enough is enough? Where’s the point at which you ‘get the garbage right’?
You never know when enough is enough. When I left New York and Argentina (both places I’ve ventured to for matters of research) I wanted more time. But finances and life back in Australia dictated when enough was enough. In What the Ground Can’t Hold, there’s a scene set in the Argentinean National Library and I really wished I’d gone there when I was in Buenos Aires but it was a late addition to the text. I had to scour photos online and talk to people who’d been there so I could describe it with specificity. When I’m researching I take lots of photos and copious notes, and a surprising amount of that makes it into my books. But you have to be careful: too much detail and it can slow the action.
It’s all about balance.
Research, identity and authenticity are some of the topics Shady has taught in UOW’s creative writing degrees.