Write About the World
by Kay Marshall Strom
I heard it yet again: “You’re a writer? What a nice life! Just sit around in your pajamas and make up stories.”
At the time, I was putting together a proposal for a three-book series set in India through the 20th century. Book 1, The Faith of Ashish, portrayed the caste system in the early 1900s. Through the life of little Ashish, it exposed the worst source of modern day slavery and planted seeds of hope. Book 2, The Hope of Shridula, played out against the backdrop of India’s fight for independence. Through Shridula, Ashish’s daughter, it showed the desperate struggle of untouchables. In Book 3, The Love of Divena, Ashish’s great-granddaughter demonstrated how India had changed over the past century, and how it had not.
Only thing was, after the proposal came the writing. Each book was to be 300-plus pages long. Which meant I needed about 1,000 pages of information about India! And it had to be accurate. Historical fiction buffs and professors and Indians from all strata of society and who-knows-who-else would be scrutinizing my every word.
I understand that. I’m from San Francisco, and I’m really critical about people who write about my city. Call it “Frisco” and you and your book will be banned for life! Others feel the same way about the places they know well. And the jobs they do. And the cultures in which they grew up. If you make a mistake, someone will know, and you will surely hear about it. Or your publisher will.
My global topics have reached from Sudan to Cambodia, from Casablanca to Beijing, from Cairo to Timbuktu. Each of these far-flung—and unfamiliar—locales required accuracy. Which meant lots of research. By the time I got to Blessings in India, I had a routine. Here’s how I researched the three books:
I determined what I needed to know. Talk about history! India surely does have it. I was curious about early English colonization. How English-folk mingled with Indians. Whether or not they all played cricket together. But all that happened way before 1900. Interesting, maybe, but I didn’t need it for the books. It’s easy to get carried away with irrelevant information. But over-researching not only takes precious time, you accumulate more information than you can handle. That’s why I first plan out where my book is going, then I limit my research to what I need. If I missed something, I can always go back later and get it.
I familiarized myself with the subject. For me, this began with reading. I read both fiction and non-fiction by Indians, by Englishmen, and by others looking from the outside in. I also watched movies set in 1900s India, such as The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions.
I scoured the news. I searched out news articles about India, my scissors at the ready. Then I tucked the clippings away in one of my four file folders: Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, or General Info.
I made friends with the internet. I hate to admit it to all you young folks, but I remember when research meant trekking to the library and spending endless hours searching through the card catalogue and the Guide to Periodical Literature. What a gift the internet has been to writers! Unlimited information at our fingertips. What do the history books say? What birds are in the Indian state of Kerala? What’s the Malayalam language like? With a couple of keystrokes, all that and much more is mine! But this wealth of information comes with a huge warning: Beware! Anyone can post anything on the internet. I never want to get caught with inaccuracies, exaggerated accounts, or prejudicial opinions. So I check and double check the source. Always.
I interviewed. Leaders of non-profit organizations, immigrant Indian hotel owners, contacts in India. All these were a great help to me. I copied down wonderfully turned phrases. Captured great insight into their culture and belief system. A Hindu scientist told me, “Everything good about India came about because of Christians.” I used that quote. Great stuff!
I put social media to work. When I was writing The Hope of Shridula, a Facebook friend in India put me in touch with an old Indian man who was present during the partition of Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. I knew from my reading that it was awful. But I had no idea how awful until I listened to that old man sob through his account. “So horrible!” he would cry. “I do not want to remember!”
I went. I know, I know. A trip across the world may not seem feasible. But I really can’t see how someone can do justice to a foreign setting without having been there. How can anyone imagine the sea of cars and motorbikes and bullock carts jammed together on a city roadway, dodging pedestrians and wandering cows? Washermen beating clothes in the river, then spreading them out in a rainbow of color to dry? A man scrubbing his elephant right next to women collecting drinking water? A roadside market displaying baskets of custard apples and mangos and marigolds? Spice sellers surrounded by sacks of pungent spices? A woman baking chapattis in a cooking fire by the roadside? As I wrote each of these scenes, I saw/smelled/heard them all over again.
To write about the world, you must know the world. And you can. Just do the research.
Kay Marshall Strom is the author of forty-two published books. Her writing includes numerous magazine articles, curriculum, and movie scripts. Already well established as a non-fiction writer, her latest six books are global fiction. Three have received awards. In addition to her writing, Kay is an in-demand speaker. Her work as a 21st century abolitionist takes her around the globe where she speaks out against social injustice, especially modern-day slavery.