#11 You CAN Write What You DON'T Know
Bobbi JG Weiss 5/28/14
Once upon a time, Dexter’s Laboratory was the big thing. This cartoon was the forerunner of “cool geek,” and I had a lot of fun writing Dexter comics, picture books and chapter books (see my resume). But one of the picture books I wrote never came out. A CD of music did, but I guess the studio decided an accompanying book wasn't necessary. These things happen in publishing, especially concerning tie-in product. One second a studio wants a publisher to do some big project, the next, they don’t. Tie-in writers get stuck in the middle. Thaaaat’s Hollywood!
Anyway, I had been asked to come up with a story involving hip hop music. Oy vay, as they say. I’m sort of a geek myself, so ME? Write something about HIP HOP? It just seemed so wrong, y’know? But I never turn down paying work, so hip hop it was!
I did a ton of research on the web about hip hop and especially the slang terminology. I’m sure it’s all changed since then. Slang changes just about every day. But I managed to pull together an idea that involved Dexter forced to attend a mandatory school dance. Of course, it’s his evil sister Dee Dee’s idea to make the dance mandatory, knowing that Dexter will freak out: “But WHY? Dee Dee, I am a genius, not a hippity hopper! You have doomed me to a night of public humiliation!”
When Dexter then discovers that Dee Dee has already arranged for his arch nemesis Mandark to be the dee jay, our hero realizes he must somehow show the world that he, Dexter, is more hippity hopping than Mandark, especially after Mandark tells Dexter: “You see, Dexter, I’m going to scientifically formulate the perfect hip hop jam list to play at the dance. Not only will I finally achieve peer popularity, but I will win the heart of Dee Dee, my true love!”
So Dexter invents a Hip Hop Ray that will transform him into a hip hop master and, thus, the star of the dance. At the story’s end, "DJ M’dark" and "Labmaster D" have a freestyle battle. Dexter is ready: “I am so down with it that I am positively subterranean!”
Below are the silly rhymes I wrote for the freestyle battle. Mandark goes first:
Labmaster D responds with:
I’m def, I’m phat, I’m alla’ that
You heard , it’s word, I’m an a-1 nerd
About Science! I keep it real
Yeah, Science! It’s how I feel
Say, Science! I come correct
I know the score, I am select!
I got the aural candy to make you handy
For movin’ and groovin’ and doin’ the smoothin’
So lift your feet an’ catch my beat
Let Science make your life complete!
Don’t make me aggie
You dumb little twerp!
You can’t front you’re best
‘Cuz you’re just a jerk!
My lab is phatest
My brains are, too!
So face the music—
I’m better than you!
A more current example of me writing-what-I-don’t-know concerns my upcoming novel Hooked. It’s about pirates. A lot of the book happens on a classic 18th century pirate ship.
Now, since it’s a dark fantasy/horror story, I couldn't just make stuff up. I knew that every detail had to be accurate so that you, the reader, would feel at home in that historical world. Only then could I successfully scare the snot out of you! So I did so much research into pirates that I now have a Pirate Library. I got down to the nitty gritty of clothing, food, hygiene, beliefs, correct speech vs slang of the time, accents, ships, the parts of ships (down to the names of all the rigging and what it was all made out of and how), guns of the time, swords, sailing in general, how to sail tall ships, ship maneuvers in different kinds of weather, superstitions, how a captain writes in his log, the Carribbean and Madagascar and other pirate hangouts, etc. etc. etc.. I’m talking years of research. I especially enjoyed driving to San Diego at one point to visit the famous Star of India as well as the Surprise, which was the tall ship built for the movie Master and Commander. (A note of interest: much of the Surprise was built using modern materials, but it still looks authentic.)
I also wanted pirate pasttimes to be represented in my novel. Pirates didn’t just work all day — well, they almost did, but not quite. What did they do for fun (besides pillage and rape)? A good friend gave me a rare book of old ship shanties and how they were used — silly me, I didn’t know they weren’t just fun songs but were also used to keep the men moving in unison in order to accomplish serious tasks aboard ship. Below is a still-famous shanty that I incorporated into my novel:
Oh, my charmin’ Nellie Ray,
They have taken you away,
You have gone to Van Diemen’s cruel shore!
For you’ve skinned so many tailors
An’ you’ve robbed too many sailors
That we look for you in Peter Street no more!
I learned what kinds of shanties were used for what kinds of jobs. I studied how the rhymes were written and which kinds of rhythms were used for what kinds of jobs. I ended up writing a song of my own. It’s not a work shanty, just a silly ditty, but I think it captures the flavor of the time. In the novel, it is composed and sung by my hero, Jon:
The bosun aboard was a hearty ol’ dog
Who spent watches off in a rum-induced fog
But brandy, in truth, was his favorite grog
So a bottle he nicked from a cabinet, ho,
A pint of his captain’s own.
In flagrante delicto the thief he was caught
And hung by his thumbs in the rigging to rot
But lo, even dead he still lusts for a tot
So his ghost it goes after the brandy, ho,
An will ne’er lay at rest down below!
If all my wildest dreams come true, my novel will one day be made into a movie (ha!) and someone will write a melody for these words. Hey, it could happen.
But the bottom line is this: we writers can write anything we feel like, as long as we work hard to understand what it is we wish to write about. That requires research. It’s a skill, so you might as well start honing it now. And don’t think of it as work. It’s fun learning all this cool stuff. It will make you look smart at your future book signings, and it will make your stories sing.
* I would love to see David Tennant as The Doctor sing my Dexter rap. That would make my LIFE. (Well, just to see David Tennant period would make my life. Oh dear, I’m starting to drool…)