Spetsnaz soldiers training in systema.
This shouldn’t be a secret to anybody who really knows me, but I have never been a member of a Soviet Union special forces unit of any stripe. I’m not one now, either.
I know, I know, you’re shocked. It seemed so likely.
I have this book, of course, called Ash, which I am in the process of finalizing. It takes place in 1964, and the main character is a young gay Spetsnaz soldier who’s kind of sort of dealing with the fact that his superior officer and lover might be some kind of tyrant while also dealing with the terrifying supernatural creatures that keep appearing around the base and killing people. Alexei’s got a lot on his mind, as you can see.
The thing is, though, that I’ve definitely never been Alexei, or anybody remotely like Alexei. Alexei was born in 1938, in a city called Kovrov in Vladimir Oblast, Russia. I can’t trace a single branch of my own family back anywhere further East than Germany (and it’s not as though being able to do so would be of much help, anyway; despite what some people might tell you, knowledge of a region and the cultures and components that make it up is not inherent in one’s genetic code.) I’ve never been to Russia — Hell, I’ve never been to Europe. I don’t even speak Russian, not really. I know just enough to beg a Russian speaker to please speak English, and also how to call someone some unkind words. Beyond that, even the way Alexei talks on a day to day basis is — or should be — a mystery to me.
But I’ve been writing outside my own experiences for a long time, now, and I feel like I’ve developed a few decent methods for getting at least comfortable enough in a character’s world to write them a bit. I should note here, of course, that this doesn’t mean I magically understand what it’s truly like to be a part of cultures and worlds that aren’t my own — that’s not what this post is about. That kind of knowledge is impossible, and to be honest, attempting to assert it is kind of offensive. (I am one of those who believes that it’s important for white writers like myself to try to write diversely; I do not believe that diverse writing creates a seat of authenticity for the writer in the culture they are attempting to write. I hope that’s clear.)
What I’m going to try to outline for you today is my research process: the way I get into a setting, the way I hunt down more or less all the surface information I feel like I might need while I’m working on something. This might surprise you!
Using Wikipedia Effectively
I told you you might be surprised. Now, I’m not advocating that you go on over to Wikipedia and just take whatever you read in an article about your research for granted as fact. Definitely don’t do that. Wikipedia, even when its information is accurate, often draws from only one source for an article, or eliminates the nuance of a subject entirely for the sake of brevity. This is not conductive to good research or authenticity.
What Wikipedia is good for, however, is springboarding. Let’s say you’re writing a story about, say, what it’s like to be left handed. You’re right handed, and you’ve never given much thought to what life might be like — and how it might be different — for us lefties. Putting aside the fact that you could definitely just ask me (believe me, I’ll tell you all the gory details,) here’s how I’d start out using Wikipedia to get me on a good research path.
There’s me, entering “Left handed” into Wikipedia’s search engine. When I hit enter, it redirects me to the page on “Handedness.” It’s a long page. Here’s where I tell you, also, that there’s no shortcut to absorbing the information you need — even if you’re not sure what, exactly, the information you need is. So, scroll the page a little, skimming for info. Depending on how left-handedness comes into play in your story, you’re going to want to keep an eye out for different things. Let’s say you want to write specifically about the difficulties lefties have in a predominantly right-handed world. You’ll then want to keep a look out for things relating to that in the article.
In this article, you’ll notice that it says the following:
-Only about 10% of the population is left-handed.
-“Right” is associated with “correctness” and “goodness,” where as “left” is associated with negative things (black magic ins one, apparently!)
-Some writing systems are easier for right handers, while others are easier for lefties.
You’ll also get a link to this page: Bias against left-handed people. This article is a gold mine for what you’re looking for, including info about:
-Lefties being forced to learn how to be right-hand dominant
-Dangerous power tools which are made for right-handed use exclusively
-More and more lists of languages in which the association of “left” is with evil or clumsiness
-Difficulty with knives, scissors, cameras, and a lot of other things.
So what do you do with this potential info? Personally, I like to “crowdsource it.” I’ll pick something in the article that I think I might be able to use, and I’ll check the source links about that bit; at the same time, I’ll put a related phrase into google to see how well the general internet’s information correlates to Wikipedia’s claims.
I’ll show you what I mean. Let’s pick the first thing — left-handers being forced to learn to operate as right-handers. When I check the linked sources in the Wikipedia article, I get a bunch of results. Here’s one of them:
You’ve now got a source, which you can use to try to verify information. But one is never enough! That’s why in school they make you use a ton on your papers. So, while I’m doing this, I’ll also open up Google, and I’ll type in something related to what I want to know. In this case, I’d look up “Discrimination against lefties.” Try it yourself! You’ll see a ton of links pop up, quite a few of them from trustworthy sources like the Smithsonian and various universities.
Now, you are going to need to read through all this stuff you find. But I feel like if doing this kind of research is too much work or seems too towering to even begin, then maybe you should rethink wanting to write outside your own experience in the first place. If you can’t learn everything you feel you need to know about the difficulties of being left handed this way, then what makes you think you can learn everything you need to know about writing someone completely outside your personal experiences? I mean, that’s how I feel about it.
I get complimented a lot on the detail of my characters, and how “alive” they are, and how intricate — I’ll tell you up front it’s because I’ve spent hours reading about the things I’ve discovered might be important to that character and their life. I buy books. I have conversations with people I know who are living these experiences. For Alexei and his story, here’s a small list of a few of the things I’ve researched this deeply:
-Homosexuality in the Soviet Union
-Ethnic demographics in Kazakhstan
-Soviet terminology of WW2
-Ethnic groups of China
-Appropriate names for Chinese men in the 1960s
-Pet names in Russian
-Russian speech patterns
-Russian military ranks
-Soviet Union political parties
And a ton more. Each of those is really just a vague header for the research “tree” I did, too. I’m not trying to brag about this: I do not by any means consider myself an expert in any of these ideas. I consider myself just read up on it enough to write the book I want to write, and only that book. Wikipedia helped me get started on where to find more info on a lot of this stuff, and I feel like if it’s used right, it could help anybody the same way.
Also, y’know, reading and research is fun. But maybe that’s just the obnoxious academic in me.