As a writer, you have probably heard the advice “write what you know” more times than you can count. And while this is one way to approach writing, it is not the only way. In fact, writing what you do not know can be even more rewarding, because it takes you on a learning journey. Author William Zinsser has called this Writing to Learn.
The recent series on this blog, The Library of Female Pirates, resulted from my need to learn about the history of piracy and famous female pirates for my fiction series. Ostensibly a science fiction narrative, my series also deals with several hundred years of history as a backdrop for the characters’ lives. Had I stuck to writing what I knew, I would have missed out on some truly amazing and inspiring histories.
Now, I do know a thing or two about billiards, having played on local 8-ball and 9-ball leagues for four or five years. But, my studies were limited to mastering shots and techniques, not history. So, when I came up with the idea for two of my lead character’s ancestors to transition from piracy to the world of billiards in the 1800s, my research took me into uncharted territory. It led me to discover François Minguad, the trick shot master credited with inventing the leather tip for billiards cues in the early 1800s.
Internet research led me to believe Mingaud came up with the idea while imprisoned in the Bastille in France. This was a fact shown not only on Wikipedia but in every single internet source I could find. I drafted a scene where my character’s great-grandmother met Mingaud in the Bastille and gave him the idea for the leather tip, an idea which would revolutionize the game by introducing “English,” the common name for the ability to make the cue ball spin in a desired direction and even transfer spin to an object ball.
So far, so good. Except, when I researched the Bastille to flesh out the narrative and get an idea of its interior for illustrations, I discovered something. The accounts of Mingaud’s imprisonment placed him in the Bastille from 1804–1807. However, all my research on the Bastille clearly showed the prison was destroyed from 1798–1799 in the French Revolution. How could Mingaud be imprisoned in a place which had been destroyed five years before his arrest?
English language publications have little to offer about Mingaud’s life. I found a reference to one of his published works, a manual of trick shots, in the back of Robert Byrne’s excellent Treasury of Trick Shots in Pool & Billiards. (His book Byrne’s New Standard Book of Pool & Billiards was always by my side when I was shooting on a league, and it helped transform me from a complete klutz into a reasonably capable player. Thank you, Mr Byrne!) Byrne’s citation helped me find a free PDF of that manual online: The Noble Game of Billiards. But, the only scholarly work on Mingaud I could track down was an entry in The Billiard Encyclopedia which carries a $99 price tag. 2014 was not a year for making purchases of that size. So, in desperation, I found Robert Byrne’s email address and sent him an inquiry.
Byrne graciously directed me to his friend Mike Shamos, a professor at Cornell University. I did not expect a busy professor to indulge my inquiry, but what did I have to lose by trying? Professor Shamos turned out to have the missing key to unlocking this mystery: a French archival website with a paragraph about Mingaud’s arrest and imprisonment. It turns out Mingaud was never imprisoned at the Bastille, but at a men’s prison named Bicêtre, a site which is now home to the Bicêtre Hospital. (Thank you, Professor Shamos! Shamos’ book The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards gives Mingaud a paragraph in the entry for “tip”, and a mention in “massé”.)
Needless to say, I revised my original Bastille scene to this location. But the journey was not yet over. I went back to the Wikipedia page that had the incorrect information about François Mingaud, previously sourced from numerous internet sites which promote this incorrect fact, and I updated it.
Some people denigrate Wikipedia because it often contains errors or uncited assertions. But if you have, like me, read thousands of non-fiction books in your life, you know many books contain factual errors. Wikipedia has the advantage that you can correct it. Yes, immature people can vandalize it, and if you are one of those people, please stop. You aren’t funny, and you are merely vandalizing our species’ greatest attempt to gather all human knowledge in one easily-accessible place.
While I agree with my university professors who refuse to accept Wikipedia as a research source, I often disagree with their criticisms. Wikipedia serves as an excellent starting point for any research project. It can give you a good overview of nearly any topic, from Einstein’s theory of special relativity to chili peppers. By clicking through the cited sources to examine and evaluate them, one can begin a research journey. Yes, you should go beyond Wikipedia and perform your own research in academic libraries and historical documents. But that does not invalidate Wikipedia as an excellent source of preliminary research.
And, if you discover errors in Wikipedia along that journey, you can update it and improve the citations. This point seems to be lost on most of the university professors in my graduate classes: if you know better than the largest encyclopedia ever created by humanity, then improve it! Make it better for the next person. It isn’t a print book we are stuck with. It is a source we can all contribute to. This is an amazing opportunity we never had when I was in high school in the twentieth century working with traditional encyclopedias and reference sources. If a book was wrong back then, it was just wrong forever, or until the publisher might decide to correct it in future editions.
Though the primary aim of a fiction writer may not be to improve the historical and factual knowledge of humanity, this may very well be the end result of writing what one does not know. Writing what you do not know takes you on a learning journey and improves your knowledge in related fields. It also gives you an opportunity to pass on that learning to others. And whether that field is eighteenth century pirates, nineteenth century billiards, twentieth century physics and genetics, or any other field your passions lead you to study, even the most escapist fiction can expand our horizons and improve our understanding of the world around us. Good luck on your journey!