Like most people, I’m on information overload, and I swear some days if one new fact enters my brain, three old facts are going to fall out, and those are probably three facts I need. So I try to focus my energy on attending to things that are relevant to me. But this can be a trap, and not just because it’s healthy for people to be well-rounded and interested in the whole world, not just one corner of it. Focusing only on the relevant can make you exclude information that you can use one way or another.
When you do research for an article, you may come across information not pertinent to the story at hand but which can be used to pitch your next story idea. Or you can come across something you’ll use for a book down the road. Someone may pass on some publicity ideas that aren’t relevant now because you’re focusing on writing magazine articles, but which may come in handy in the future when you turn those magazine articles into a book.
In Dojo Wisdom for Writers, I wrote, “For fiction writers, ‘useless’ knowledge can add dimension to characters and plots, making them seem real. John Grisham uses his understanding of the law and lawyers to write his thrillers. When he chose to become a writer, he could have decided that all the time he spent studying the law was ‘useless’ but instead he turned it to his advantage to create plots and situations that seem plausible because of his special, detailed knowledge of the field. Best-selling author Barbara Michaels uses her background as an archaeologist to enhance her Amelia Peabody mysteries. Reading her books (she also writes as Elizabeth Peters) you get a sense that any subject that interests her (country music, romance novels, Richard III) eventually becomes part of a novel. She obviously indulges her interest in a wide-range of subjects and finds ways to work her ‘useless’ knowledge into her plots and characterizations.”
So I encourage you not to fall into the trap of focusing only on what’s relevant to your life right now.
Tomorrow . . . some tips for keeping the door open without getting overloaded.