Lice, and Writing What You (Don’t) Know

No, I do not have lice.  Just in case you were wondering.

What I do have is a bad case of writer’s search history. At least this time it doesn’t include researching how to kill someone with your hands while leaving a minimum amount of evidence (hint: if any of your DNA is left at the scene, down to a hair, you’re screwed). What it does include is extensive research on various parasites and how you can become infected with them, particularly between the years 1870 and 1900. What was much harder to access is information about effectively treating these cases. It took a little work for me to conclusively connect the use of jasmine oil and lice outbreaks. I wouldn’t put it in a research paper, but it answered my question and gave my characters something to do while they talked.

I’m a writer. I’m constantly researching things, and I’m constantly being given advice that doesn’t help (usually by people who have no idea what they are talking about). For example, the whole idea that if you a) start a blog and b) put ads on it, you’ll suddenly become a millionaire (or at least get a tiny bit of revenue, because the world sucks and everyone hates ads, anyway–you’ll notice I don’t have ads). My favorite piece of advice, which usually spills from the mouths of those-who-do-not-write, is “write what you know.”

My first known work of writing was a sci-fi revisionary history of World War II that featured multilingual bionic teen girls who wrecked havoc upon the Axis Powers from within. I’m fairly sure I stopped just short of introducing dinosaur steeds. I do remember topping 20,000 words before I gave up, but then, I was eight. That’s a lot of words for an eight year old. It’s safe to say that I did not “write what I knew.” In other news, the computer I wrote that on has been broken into a thousand pieces and melted down (after which it was ground into powder).

Ok, so it was pretty awful (it might have made a few angels cry). On the other hand, it was pretty important, merely because it let me write. I had nothing interesting to write, so I made up stuff that was interesting to me. Since then, I’ve learned a few things. First, I’ve learned that there actually is socially acceptable mashup between history and mechanics (steampunk), and second, I’ve learned how to research (I am a trained master of the Art of Google Fu, especially for original sources).

Earlier today, I read the story behind Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold“, an article that helped shape modern journalism. Talese didn’t know Frank Sinatra before he was given his topic–he was given the assignment, and then he did his research. If everyone wrote what they knew, we would have nothing to read, because everything would be boring. We have interesting things to read because people chose to write about things that they didn’t know, and they researched their butts off to create something that they liked (and, hopefully, that others would like, too). Don’t write what you know; know what you write.

Oh, by the way–jasmine oil contains benzyl alcohol, and benzyl alcohol kills lice. So next time you find yourself stuck in the 1880s, rub some jasmine in your hair.

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