One piece of advice that most emerging writers often hear is “write what you know.” And it makes sense to write about something you’re familiar with. If you grew up on a farm in Texas, setting your story on a cattle ranch makes your work that much easier. You still might have to do some research, if you haven’t been personally involved buying cows at auction or with the branding procedure, but at least the territory will feel familiar.
When I chose a graffiti artist as the protagonist for my novel-in-progress, I had to do lots of research, since I haven’t spent any time in that culture. The research was fun and I hope I’ve achieved a degree of street cred in the writing of those parts of the novel.
But the world of graffiti is only one part of the novel’s setting. I spent eight years studying iconography, training at workshops all over the country, speaking on iconography, publishing essays about iconography, teaching icon workshops, and doing commissioned icons. So writing about iconography comes natural to me, although I “retired” from writing icons over a year ago.
As a convert to the Orthodox faith, I’ve also made many visits to monasteries, in this country and in Greece, so the scenes that I’ve set at an icon workshop at a monastery also feel comfortable to me.
I’ve even seen some weeping icons. The first time was on a visit to a monastery in Michigan. I went with some of the nuns from the monastery on a day trip to a nearby church to venerate some icons that had begun weeping a few weeks earlier, including this one. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
A couple of years later, I went with three Orthodox friends on a weekend trip to Chicago, where we visited three churches that had weeping icons in them, including this one, known as the “Our Lady of Cicero,” which began weeping in 1994.
But I still don’t trust my experience to be enough background for writing the scenes true. So I talked with a couple of people who have more education and experience than I have in this area, and also checked out a few online sources. If you’re interested, I found these helpful:
Of course I won’t write about all of this in the book. The research and my experience in this area are both part of the “back story” for the novel. It’s tempting to share everything I’ve learned—about iconography and graffiti—either from experience or research, when writing the book, but restraint is necessary, or it will come across as information dump instead of a great story. But nothing is wasted—when I go back and cut out the extra stuff, I will save it for possible use elsewhere.
Tonight at the Lenten service at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, we’ll be praying the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God. There will be an icon of the Mother of God in the center of the solea. The priest will stand in front of the icon, circle it with a censor, and lead worshippers in the hymn, many of whom will approach the icon, make a prostration and kiss the icon in veneration of the Mother of God, and in worship of Her Son. We do this every Friday night during Great Lent. I don’t expect the icon to start weeping, but sometimes I find my own eyes filled with tears because of the beauty of the service, and the way the prayers move my heart to love for the Mother of God. When that happens, it’s not research, or even “experience.” It’s God’s grace.