Thursday, February 25, 2016

Writing Outside Your Culture: Reading Research, Part I

In January, I told you why I write outside my culture. This month I’ll tell you how. Not how I write, but how I learn about cultures I don’t belong to and events I didn’t live through.

Have you ever been told to “write what you know”? Some writers think that means they should only write about things they have directly experienced. But if everyone felt that way, we would have no historical fiction, no biographies of long-dead individuals, and no fantasies from Middle Earth.

So what does the phrase really mean? I think it has two components. One is the writer’s reaction in situations that evoke the same emotions. Can I know how my protagonist felt when the government took away her freedom and placed her in what was essentially a prison camp? Not really. But I do know how it felt when my parents punished me by taking away something I really wanted. By remembering that feeling and magnifying it exponentially, I may come close to what my protagonist would have felt.

But it is the other component that I want to concentrate on in this post. To write what you know, you must research, research, and research.

Autobiographies, letters, newspapers, and “as told to” accounts are better than history books for learning what people actually experienced. For more recent events, interviews provide additional information by showing the anguish in the person’s voice and the pauses for composure before talking about certain subjects. I will cover interviews in a later post.

I was fortunate to have good materials available when writing Desert Jewels. I followed the footsteps of Yoshiko Uchida, who lived in Berkeley before Pearl Harbor, was initially incarcerated at Tanforan Assembly Center, and was then sent to Topaz (officially known as the Central Utah Relocation Center). Hers was one of several memoirs by people who were sent along that same path. In addition, the camp newspapers from Tanforan and Topaz are available online. So I had a wealth of information to use when trying to create an authentic experience for the reader.

Using that information, I attempted to capture both the facts and the external and internal reactions they produced. Accuracy is crucial if I want to honor the culture and the people who lived through the events that provide the background for my story.

The main point here is that you and I don’t have to belong to a culture or live through an event to write about it.

But we’d better have done our research.


The photograph at the head of this post shows the stables that were turned into living quarters for some of the Japanese Americans incarcerated at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California. The June 16, 1942 picture was taken by Dorothea Lange as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at


  1. Kathryn, I'm in the middle of researching Code breaking during World War II. I never thought to hunt down an actual autobiography on the subject. I need to look and see if I can find one. I want my story to be as authentic as possible. Thank you for your advice.

    1. Autobiographies and memoirs are my absolutely favorite research tools. I hope your search is successful.