Four Ways For Writers To Read More Non-Fiction

This bridge shows off the latest Italian fashions for winter.

A shocking number of writers only read fiction. I ain’t judging; until a few years ago, I was among them. And even then, I tended to read within a few specific genres. Read what you want to write, right?

Wrong. And boring. Reading only what you want to write, whether it’s space opera, short stories, or Supernatural slash-fic, is too limiting. Read broadly. Read indiscriminately. Read like the book slut* you always wanted to be.

But it’s hard to get started with non-fiction. Especially if you go to the library or the book store or Amazon and see the endless, endless choices. So here are a few entrances to this new field. Explore at will.

1. Read about something you’re already interested in. Like historical fantasy? Have a go at reading about royalty, or technological achievements of that era, or the Big Gooey Plague That Melted Everyone. Or, if family dramas are more your thing, start reading some memoirs about people who lived with their real-life fucked up families. Bonus: this might help you write your book in that genre and not make it sound like everyone else’s. Also, you’ll finally learn what a lot of Victorian/Steampunk writers and their cover artists seem to forget, which is that corsets go on the inside.

2. Learn more about something odd. Remember the last time you saw a news story on something you thought was strange? Like the Large Hadron Collider, or the Tea Party movement, or yarn-bombing? See what you can find out about it. Maybe you’ll pick up a new interest. Maybe you’ll just expand your knowledge of the complete insanity that lives in our world. Either way, from a writing perspective: WIN.

3. Find a book one of your characters would read. This gets a little meta, but follow me: if you have a character who’s really, really into woodworking or wine or shibari-style bondage, you’ll be able to write them more effectively if you read something on it. And, once again, you never know: you might find yourself eyeing the rope section at the hardware store with more interest.**

4. BOOK ROULETTE. Pick a book at random on a topic you’ve never heard of and get cracking. Sounds insane, but I’ve done it and discovered some books that I otherwise never would have read. And because I’m a writer, no knowledge, no matter how esoteric, is ever wasted. Because who doesn’t want to write a bouncer/cage fighter with a serious knowledge of hand-made lace?

Now, go forth and read! And tell me: what’s the weirdest knowledge you’ve ever acquired?

*No book-slut shaming, either.

**But don’t. Go to a sex shop and get some bondage rope. Your skin—or your partner’s—will thank you.

Can And Will Be Used Against You: Real Life Research

The tractor sent flowers to the hospital for Al, which everyone agreed was very classy for a piece of heavy machinery.

Whenever I’m around people and one of them tells the often-embarrassing tale of a particularly weird thing that happened to them or around them, the following happens:

Person Who Didn’t Tell The Story: *turns to me* That’s going to turn up in a story one day, isn’t it?

Me: Probably, but I’ll change the names so only we know who did it.

Person Who Told The Story: *nervous laughter*

It must be how psychologists feel whenever people start acting “normal”* when they’re around.

Rest easy: most of those stories you tell me and mine do not end up in our writing. Sometimes it’s because real life really is stranger than fiction; I still find it hard to believe than a well-educated person who had made it well into middle age would claim to find the taste of chocolate laxatives so good that they’d eat enough boxes to spend an entire day at work violently shitting themselves.** And sometimes it’s because the stories themselves are too distinctive. No one wants to explain to their family over Thanksgiving dinner that they didn’t think anyone would recognize Uncle Al in that short story about the guy who tried to fuck a tractor.

Mostly, though, that stuff doesn’t end up there because it’s not the stories we’re looking for.

What is far more likely to end up in our writing material are feelings, atmospheres, quirks of speech, habits, places, or things. That lamp made seashells from a long-ago vacation that Aunt Ida took in her youth; most of the shells have fallen away, leaving dried glue and memories behind. The way family dinner feels when everyone’s just waiting, waiting, for Racist Inappropriate Grandma to make some comment about Sophie’s new boyfriend. The hollow sound of the wind in the now-abandoned neighbourhood of your youth, rattling loose shutters that no one will ever come to repair.

The way you hesitate and flush, twisting your glass around and around in your hands, before telling that story, half embarrassed, half proud.

So, you’ll end up in our stories. All of you. But you probably won’t recognize yourself when you do.

* Or what they think is normal. Hint: it’s not.

** God, I wish I was making that up.

I Need This Whiskey For Research

Give me all your research material!

People always throw around the old advice “write what you know”. I entirely blame that single phrase for every boring, insipid, slice-of-fucking-life novel I have been forced to read. Slice of life? Slice my wrists, more like.

I hate this advice because people take it as an escape hatch. I know about being a piece of human cardboard, so I will write about that.

It’s not a prescription, people. It’s a challenge.

Write what you know? Then you better know some interesting stuff. And most people do. The average person is, frankly, not that fucking average. I have yet to meet someone who didn’t have at least one interesting thing about them. Maybe they’re an expert in knitting sock heels*, or they can name the stats of every NFL player who has ever been indicted for a major crime. People are interesting.

But tell those same people to write what they know and they gravitate towards the most boring, everyman incarnation of themselves. Because characters are supposed to be relatable.

You know what I relate to? People who do things. Instead of sitting around waiting for the plot to start, they’re out there learning to code, hiking mountains, teaching a robot to love, or perfecting their blintz recipe. They’re talking, learning, fighting, fucking. When the plot happens, it’s interrupting a life that was already in progress.

Take the advice, but take it in the spirit of learning. You want to write about a computer programmer who’s an expert on scotch? Read up on some coding languages and try a few lines. After that, get thee to the distillery or local watering hole and start trying stuff. If you’re really dedicated, you’ll learn about hangovers at the same time.

Now, some things are obviously impossible to actually learn. I’m not likely to become a sorcerer through watching YouTube videos.** You will not gain superpowers by letting radioactive spiders bite you; you will probably gain a rash, though. But those things are not all that make that character interesting. Peter Parker is Spider-Man, but he’s also a scientist, a nerd, and a photographer. Someone writing him would probably do well to crack open a few science books, or take a look at the standards in newspaper photography these days.

So, maybe it shouldn’t be “write what you know” at all. Maybe it should be “write what you can learn”.

*Seriously, there are a lot of variants. I know like 8 without even trying, and I’m not a hardcore knitter.

**Much to my chagrin, I assure you.


All Request Friday: Do Your Fucking Research

BSS research

So that’s how you perform heart surgery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s post comes to you by special request.* A friend send me the following text the other day:

Do the world a favour and write a blog post called ‘do your fucking research’.

The instigator of this text was the book my friend was reading. Confronted with a never-ending stream of historical inaccuracies, implausible devices, and questionable—and possibly dangerous—fashion choices, she was understandably annoyed.

And who among us hasn’t been there? I sure as hell have. I remember quite distinctly having to stop in the middle of a book because the author claimed two background characters were “Inuit from a reservation in northern Saskatchewan.”** I got past it and finished the book***, but it was a near thing.

And that is why doing your research is important: wrong things jar the readers out of the story, and there’s a decent chance they won’t come back. Also, you look silly. No one wants that.

So, to facilitate not making asses of ourselves, here’s the Bare Knuckle Guide to Research for Writing. Ask yourself these questions whenever situations you’re unsure of come up in your story:

1) Have you done the thing you’re writing about? At least once, and in real life. Flying in a video game does not count. If so, cool. Use your own experience. If not, you can always try to go do it. I like to pretend this is one of the reasons I went to a firing range for the first time last year. But if the thing you’re talking about is hard, expensive, uninteresting, or illegal, go on to number two.

2) Do you know anyone who has? Time to make all those friends and family members prove they’re useful for something. Mine their experience, get their impressions. Just be up front about what you need the information for, or you’re going to have some awkward explaining to do when Uncle Jimmy recognizes his own first attempt at picking up dudes in back-country Nebraska in your manuscript. Don’t be that guy.

3) Do you have access to the Internet? There’s a thing called Google I want to introduce you to. You don’t have to go far on this, but a cursory search will turn up facts like wearing a corset outside your clothes in Victorian times made you the world’s largest ho-bag and other gems. It’s amazing how many people get this wrong. You don’t need to know everything about your topic, but a quick look can flesh out scenes enough for you to be getting on with. YouTube how-to videos are amazingly helpful.

4) Does this even make fucking sense? Always, always ask this. Steampunk, I’m looking at you. Steam-powered cell phone? I don’t think you understand what steam does. I suggest you go put a boiling kettle to your ear and see what happens. Also, do you have any idea what size a boiler needs to be?
When it doubt, go with common sense. If only because it’s so fucking uncommon.

*Got any questions or topics you’d like to see me address? Drop me a line at or in the comments. I love taking requests.
**Three things wrong with that description. Three.


When you do as much research as I do, and especially when that research tends to be of the internet variety, some things change for the worse inside your head. Example? Glad to provide one: every random pain/ache/illness becomes a life-threatening condition. It goes like this:

 Ow. I have a headache.
Headache? Fuck, that’s not good. Is it one of those stabbing ice-pick ones?
No, more of a dull throb.
OH GOD. That’s no headache, that’s the feeling of a brain parasite chewing its way through our frontal lobe!
Does this hand look shaky to you?
Only because you had nine cups of coffee again.
Irrelevant! Or…maybe the brain parasite wants coffee. I think I read that somewhere. Maybe it needs the energy to gnaw our brain.
Can’t be getting much sustenance from it. Look, if  we had a brain parasite, we wouldn’t have a headache. There’s no pain receptors in brain tissue.
Where did you hear that?
Read it somewhere.
Yeah…well…shut up. How do I know you’re not the parasite?
…The parasite is talking to you now?
Hah! You admit it!
I’m going back to editing. You feel free to join me whenever you finish twitching.
I can’t edit! I have to go research sentient brain parasites.

And so on. I’d write more, but I seem to have done something stabby to my rotator cuff and typing is not helping, Funny that. I’m going to eat Easter chocolate and read Locke and Key until I stop thinking that I have some kind of shoulder gangrene. Or until my arm drops off. Either or.