I believe there are two types of writing. The first is mainly ‘imaginary,’ where the writer sits down with his/her writing instrument, casts deep into his/her internal well of ideas, and concocts a story from the aether, either based on an amalgamation of past experiences or through pure speculation. The second type is ‘journalistic,’ where the writer has the basic idea for a story, then goes out and hits the books and/or pokes around in the world, taking what s/he has found and building the narrative from those elements.
Some writers only employ one or the other methods throughout their careers, while some will vary their approach based on what they’re writing; just to give some examples, the Harry Potter series (while no doubt using certain real places as inspiration) would be termed ‘imaginary,’ while something like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is most certainly ‘journalistic.’ There is always some overlap, of course, as even books of high fantasy and sci-fi will require research on certain elements (like maybe armour or ion engines), and any work of fiction, no matter how real-world based it is, is by definition the creation of a narrative that didn’t actually happen (literary non-fiction, like In Cold Blood, blurs the line here, I think you know what I mean). But there is still a big difference between books that are purely ‘created,’ and those which are ‘crafted.’ All in all, I tend to be a crafter.
I don’t necessarily know why, but I don’t fully trust ‘pure imagination’ (or at least, I don’t fully trust my imagination) to create original work. If I’m writing something purely from my head, from an amalgamation of my past experiences, then I’m limited by my past experiences; I’m pulling only from whatever’s happened to me or I’ve overheard and whatever books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen etc. How do I know I’m not just recycling ideas? And I feel that it’s sometimes obvious when writers don’t look much beyond their own heads for inspiration – their prose can be flat, full of menial description and cliché (not always, but often – very skilled writers can rise above and get away with it). The writers I most admire – George Orwell, Ann-Marie MacDonald, or Ernest Hemingway, for example – got out into the world and built their narratives from what was going on around them, or used intense research and a dedication to detail as the foundations of their writing.
Even if, when you strip it down, the plot and main theme of something like For Whom the Bell Tolls is pretty basic (man fights on despite the high probability of certain death), just the fact that it’s set within the milieu of the Spanish Civil War, with all the details and descriptions inherent to that specific time, gives it an air of authenticity and uniqueness, since there’s really nothing else like it. A person writing a novel about, say, New York City cops going out on the job every day despite the chance of death, isn’t necessarily going to have the same impact, because this topic has been covered innumerable times in crime novels and movies and TV shows. How many writers of this type of work were never actually even cops? If these writers are simply pulling plot devices and characterization from their heads based on all the other cop books and shows and movies they’ve watched, than they’re basically just re-doing the same novels and shows we’ve already read (again, a skilled writer can make even the most banal topic seem new, but that’s a rare thing). If the writer was a former cop, or if the writer did a lot of research on policing or went on some ride-alongs, however, then the text will hopefully feel more authentic.
So anyway, for what I want to do, for the types of books that I want to write, I’ve always felt I need to immerse myself in wherever and whatever it is that I’m writing about. I’ll have a story and basic plot in mind, but I always look to set it against the backdrop of a specific time and place, so that the book has the multi-layered quality that I’m looking for. This does, however, involve much more work and a lot of sacrifice compared to if I was just sitting at home writing about cops or my feelings or something.
Part II of this post will detail that work and those sacrifices.