I used to pride myself on having a large vocabulary. I know words such as noesis, after all. I even know and use some words you only find in the most unabridged of dictionaries. Stoit, for example, means to move in a staggering fashion, like Captain Jack Sparrow in those pirate movies. When I was a kid, I always aced vocabulary tests in school.
Then one day, I was walking with a friend and pointed out the lovely violets in someone’s yard. She corrected me, letting me know the plant was creeping myrtle. Since I have a brown thumb, I’m not great on plant names. The more I thought about it, the more I realized there are whole subject areas of vocabulary in which I’m deficient: plants, cooking, knitting. What does al dente mean anyway? What are you doing when you braise something? Is a purl a little bead you fasten into your scarf?
One of the most generally known rules of good writing is “be specific.” Don’t say “tree.” Say “juniper” or “thorny locust.” How can I be a good writer if I don’t know the difference between violets and creeping myrtle?
It turns out other writers have the same problem, this lack of an omniscient vocabulary. Nobody knows everything about every subject. That’s where research comes in. If I want to have one of my characters knitting and speaking knowledgably of the process, I don’t have to have the knowledge already stored in my brain. I can read knitting magazines, books and blogs, and talk to one of the 1,000 people I know who do knit in order to lay some nifty terminology into my story.
Writer’s Digest has a whole series of books dealing with need-to-know information in different areas. Need to poison one of your characters, but don’t know much about poisons? Serita Stevens will help you out with the Book of Poisons: A Guide for Writers. Want to get your legal vocabulary straight for a courtroom scene? Try Order in the Court: A Writer’s Guide to the Legal System by David S. Mullally. Not clear on the difference between an abrasion and a contusion? You may want to browse Body Trauma: A Writer’s Guide to Wounds and Injuries by David W. Page.