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Write What You Don't Know
by Sean McLachlan

Return to Research & Interviews · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

One of the standard pieces of advice given to beginning writers is to "write what you know." Like all received wisdom, this is true only to a point. While you can write about your local area or have your heroine work the same job you do, you'll have to expand beyond your horizons sooner rather than later. All fiction writers, especially genre writers, end up having to write what they don't know. None of us have walked on another planet or saved the president from assassination, so how do we depict these things in a convincing manner?

Nonfiction writers have to go beyond their knowledge too. While journalists and freelance writers all have their specialties, harried editors will often assign stories that take the writer well beyond their comfort zone. It's part of the job. and being able to write what you don't know is essential to building a career.

Focus On What You Do Know

I've never been in a gunfight, but I've written a lot of them. While I don't know what it's like to be in battle, I do know how to fire a gun, and I do know what it's like to fear for my safety and the safety of my friends. I also know what it's like to be shot at. It was an accident, but that didn't make it any less real!

Readers aren't really after the plot, they're after the emotions that the plot gives them. We all know what it's like to strive for something, or to be disappointed, or to be enraged. These emotions are what will carry your scenes. When you start looking at your scenes in those terms, you'll find you know more about your characters' situations than you think.

This works for nonfiction as well. Focus on the things in your subject that affect all of us. You and your readers may not be Syrian refugees, but we all know what it's like to miss home and be worried about our family's future.

Research, Research, Research

Sue Burke, author of numerous highly regarded science fiction stories, says, "Research leads straight to originality because nothing is exactly as it seems at first glance. For example, athletes may seem tough, but often they have superstitious rituals to prepare for a competition, such as certain clothes to wear or foods to eat, and this is a portal to explore their anxiety. Houseplants might seem like a benign hobby, but nasty smuggling rings bring endangered species to unscrupulous collectors. I live in Spain, and here commercial fishermen hate the sea. Why? Because every time they leave port, the sea might kill them. They fear the sea. And yet, children follow parents into the business.

"How did I learn this? I spent time with athletes. I talked to horticulturalists. I read about Spanish fishermen. Read widely, learn new things every day, explore avidly, try anything, talk to anyone: this will help you write better, and you can have fun doing it."

If writing nonfiction, the best thing to do is to assemble as many basic facts as possible in order to create an accurate framework for the story. When writing a guidebook to London, I had to include information about the city's football (soccer) teams. I knew very little about British football and cared less, but a few hours reading the sports papers and checking out the official websites for the teams helped me create an accurate chapter.

Research works for erotica too, even without a "hands-on" approach. Nicola Jane, author of Follow Your Fantasy, a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure erotica published by Harper Impulse, says, "I hope no one ever looks at my Google history! I've researched a lot of very strange things. The most fun one was what it's like on the set of adult (porn) films. It turns out they're not very sexy places at all - it's just a job for most of the film crew and even some of the actors. For the second book, I read a book by a sex expert who had collected hundreds of womens' fantasies. That gave me lots of ideas what to write about."

Experts Are Your Friends

You don't have to become an expert at your field, you just have to find someone who is. I've been a freelance writer for more than a decade and I'm still amazed at just how much you can learn and experience by simply asking. People who are enthusiastic about their sphere of knowledge love sharing with writers. Park rangers, museum curators, university professors, firefighters... all sorts of people will happily give you information that will lend realism to your prose, and show you everything from the mummy storage room at the British Museum to the municipal waste treatment plant. The mummy room was better.

After writing that chapter on London football teams, I had my housemate read it. As a rabid football fan, he was the perfect beta reader and I was happy to learn that my research helped me get it right.

Andrew Leon Hudson, author of several short stories and the steampunk novel The Glass Sealing (Musa Publishing), came across some experts in an unusual way.

"Several years ago I was a moderator on an online forum in which a sub-group of teen-aged members began discussing self-harming. I was tasked with ensuring that, like everyone else, their comments didn't break the forum's content guidelines. It was an unusually difficult task, balancing the forum's requirement not to allow any graphic description (or encouragement) of such activity with their freedom to discuss a troubling issue and desire offer emotional support to each other. What surprised me most, however, was the frequent, aggressive intrusion of other members into these conversations, directing miscellaneous abuse, accusing them of attention-seeking, etc. The moderators spent more time deflecting such negativity than policing the actual discussion by far.

"I have never engaged in self-destructive activities like theirs and I hope I never will, so you could say there is no better example of writing what you don't know than a non-self-harming man writing about a self-harming woman; but witnessing these discussions and a microcosm of the struggles they faced from outsiders was a real eye-opener, and eventually informed one of my stories, 'The Blade,' that would otherwise have been much less effective."

Mind the Details

Nothing will trip you up quicker than all those pesky details. While any decent writer can get the major aspects of a subject right, lots of minor errors can easily creep into your prose and more knowledgeable readers will spot them and call you to task. The tricky thing about the details is that you may not know they're important, or even that they exist. This is where in-depth research and a friendly expert become essential.

For example, in the post-apocalyptic setting of Radio Hope, I have many characters surviving by scavenging material from ruined settlements of the Old Times and trading it to the techs at New City in exchange for food. One easy item to scavenge is electrical wiring. It's abundant, lightweight, and always good for a trade. Now, I could have just made up a scene about stripping wiring from a building, but I don't actually know what's involved, and anyone who actually has stripped wiring would probably find fault with my description. A quick email to my local handyman (who isn't a writer but occasionally blogs about his three-wheeled Piaggio Ape 50 van) revealed, "two possibilities. One has the cable running in conduit, in which case you just give a mighty heave. You might need to find corner junctions, which may be covered by a circular plate on the wall that is screwed on. Have a look at your own internal walls and also those in shops, bars, etc. If not in conduit, then you have to wrench it out from the plaster or plasterboard. That will probably be noisy."

Ah, it's noisy! That leads to an idea. If the scavenger makes too much noise stripping out the wire, he might attract some unwelcome attention. The details you discover can lead to entirely new scenes.

We've all read fiction and nonfiction where the writer has gotten a detail wrong, and it can be a minor annoyance or even so bad as to make us put down the book or article. The flipside of this is that if you get the details right, you create a vivid world where the knowledgeable reader feels at home. Even someone who doesn't know about the particular subject will sense when a writer is speaking from authority, and that makes the reading experience all the better.

It's Fiction, Breathe Easier

You don't have to be 100% accurate with fiction. Military writers I know such as David Drake and Weston Ochse, who are both combat veterans, often smile at the battle scenes people who have never been in combat may write, but if the prose flows well, they can overlook these flaws. Once I was reading a book set in the 17th century and I found a minor historical inaccuracy. While it made me stumble over the story for a second, I still enjoyed the book and ended up reading more by the same author.

Nicola Jane says, "No one really needs to ask me if the erotica is based on my real life. My imagination provides a much richer selection of scenarios and characters than I've met in real life and I can take scenes in any direction I want to... The hardest part of writing about sex is not what I know or don't know, it's transmitting the feeling of sex through words."

You are not perfect. No book you will write will be perfect and no book ever written is perfect, so relax, and enjoy writing.

Find Out More...

How to Outgrow "Write What You Know", by Jenna Glatzer

What Do You Know? by Moira Allen

Write What You Know -- Because You Know More than You Think! by Marg Gilks

Copyright © 2014 Sean McLachlan
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.

Sean McLachlan is an archaeologist turned writer who is the author of more than a dozen books of fiction and history. His latest book is Radio Hope, a post-apocalyptic novel written despite the fact that he has never survived an apocalypse. Check him out on his blog Midlist Writer (http://midlistwriter.blogspot.com/).


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