Using the insider’s perspective

We were in synagogue over the weekend, attending a cousin’s bar mitzvah (and mazel tov to him!), and I thought I’d properly prepped my interfaith kids for the experience: Use the transliteration to pronounce the Hebrew words, turn the siddur pages from the left, stand when the Torah scrolls come out, don’t talk when everyone is praying silently. Afterward, my daughter asked why people had been bowing during the service, and I realized I’d left that out of my prep talk. Jews bow while reciting specific lines in certain prayers, I explained.

It’s a little more tricky than the standing and sitting, when you can just do what everyone else is doing to blend in. There’s no advance notice on when to bow, it doesn’t say “bow here” in the siddur, and by the time you notice other people bowing, the moment’s probably passed; you need to know when to do it from experience. Oh, and the details are likely to vary by synagogue.

Confused yet? (If so, here’s a pretty good overview on the subject.)

The conversation reminded me why firsthand knowledge is important, in life and in writing. If you wanted to write about a synagogue service, you’d probably know about the Hebrew chanting and the Torah scrolls, but unless you’d sat through a service yourself, you might not know to include the bowing.

That insider’s perspective can make all the difference in the authenticity of your work. When researching a topic, don’t stop at the surface level; try to figure out what an insider would know, someone who’s an expert or part of the community being written about, and look at the topic through that person’s point of view. Then you’ll know the details that are important to explain for the reader, and the details your characters would so take for granted as part of the landscape that they might not remember to notice for more than half a sentence. 

Or if your characters aren’t meant to be insiders in the world you’ve created, make them as observant as my daughter, who caught the one detail I’d forgotten to tell her about in advance and got me to give her the insider’s perspective.

In research mode

I like research. Geeky to say but true. I like having perpetually new reasons to learn more about the world around me. Sometimes that means a trip to the library, and sometimes it means a road trip.

For my day job recently, I wrote a magazine article about historic buildings saved from demolition when they were repurposed as performance venues — good for historic preservation and the local arts scene. (You can read it here.) My research was a combination of interviews and in-person visits, so I could get a sense of what these sites were like. In other words, multiple road trips to parts of the state I don’t often visit. Two things about New Jersey you probably didn’t know: It has a number of centuries-old buildings (one of the original 13 colonies, after all), and most of the state is much prettier than whatever you saw while stuck in traffic on the Turnpike or while hustling through Newark Airport. Lovely scenery plus learning about historic architecture equals a win.

Meanwhile, I am doing research for a novel-in-progress involving abandoned amusement parks and rereadings of “Beowulf.” It will all make sense in the final draft (theoretically), though reading “Beowulf” is a pleasure in its own right for the beautiful language.

Inevitably, I overdo it; I have more knowledge than I could possibly need for whatever I’m working on. But that’s a good thing. Better to thoroughly know your subject than to patchwork-guess your way through. You never know when that newfound knowledge will be useful in a different setting.

I don’t know what I’ll be researching next, but I can’t wait to find out.