Writing what you don’t know can be scary! Creating a world out of thin air can be intimidating.
This is exactly why there is this whole, big, stupid, “write what you know” controversy.
Some who oppose “write what you know” argue that you should choose imagination over familiarity. Perhaps you should venture outside your own time or country. Perhaps you should dig around for inspiration that comes from subject matter you know nothing about.
These are all good arguments, but generally speaking, the more outside of your current life you write, the harder and more time-consuming your creative work may be.
If you decide to write what you don’t know, you may have to do these things:
You may have to do research beyond Wikipedia. If you are choosing to write about a setting beyond your own experience, it will be critical that you find accurate resources so that your details are right. Wikipedia, as great as it is, may not be enough. Instead, consider looking at libraries or reference books. Here’s a warning: you may fall down a rabbit hole! You could get so wrapped up in what life was like in 1880s Chicago, that you’ll forget what you’re looking for.
You may have to fill in the gaps of what can’t be found out. There are some things that we’ll never really know about specific time periods in history. Did slaves in ancient Rome worry about their hair? You could probably guess no and be okay. If you, in all your research, don’t come to a definitive conclusion about a specific situation, then it’s a safe bet your readers won’t know either. You can, with all honesty, take a guess, and not lose your artistic integrity.
You may have to imagine new feelings. This can be fun. You may get to fall in love all over again, but this time to an alien on Mars, a Confederate soldier or a Brazilian carnival dancer. It may be a bit troubling to write from another gender’s point of view, but with enough research, you can do it. Many times our emotions are universal so romance in one setting can often feel like romance in another. But if you’re not sure, try to talk to someone who’s been there and felt that way before.
You may have to go to some dark places. This can be scary. You may have to mentally recreate a violent act or emotional abuse. If these kinds of thoughts are new to you, consider yourself blessed. But because you haven’t experienced it first hand, you may have trouble touching authentic emotions. Personally, I’ve had enough darkness in my life. I’m not that willing to relive it for the sake of my story.
You may have to ask others about their experiences. In your research, you may find it helpful to find groups or communities who know something about your subject matter. Often they are enthusiastic about it, so they’ll be happy to help. You want to come to them prepared with questions. You also can’t expect them to do your work for you. Consider using someone in this field as a beta reader to check your accuracy.
You may have to think about physics and math. Writers, generally speaking, avoid these subjects. That’s why we’re writers. But if you are writing in complex mathematic or scientific settings, you’ll need to make sure that your science is accurate, even though your situation is all fiction or fantasy. If you are creating the world that breaks physical laws, you may have to justify it somehow. Science and math research should be able to help.
You may have to take time away from actual writing. Research takes time! And if you’re already writing in 10-minute increments (like I wrote this blog post) then you’ll find that the project will take longer than you think. The reason that I don’t write historical fiction is that I like getting my drafts done in a timely matter. You’ll have to make a decision if writing what you don’t know is work the digging around.
You may have to document your details. The more imaginative your world, the more you’ll have to keep track of. You may make decisions on climate, geography, and architecture and for every choice you make, you’ll need to remember it later. Consistency is critical in all stories, but in a vast science fiction or fantasy world, it’s of double importance. Create a system that will make keeping your facts straight easier.
You may have to study other genres. If you have set out to be a fantasy or science fiction writer, you should know what you’re getting into. Read all you can in these genres so that you get a feel for tone and expectation. Each genre has rules to follow and you want your book to follow those rule so that your readers know what to expect. Reading is always good for you.
You may have to travel. Sigh. If you are going to accurately write about exotic places, you may actually have to visit them. This fact, along with coffee and long periods of isolation, is the very best reason to be a writer. If you can afford it, don’t rely on Google maps and street view and your Facebook friends from Togo to tell you everything you need to know. It may be best to update your passport and pack your bags.
You may have to make phone calls. I, for one, write, so I don’t have to talk to people on the phone. Although I cheer the concept of automatic bill pay and email, I may balk at the idea of cold calling experts about things I don’t know. Regardless of how you feel, or even if you want to show off your hairdo on Skype, the accuracy of your work-in-progress may require this. Let’s hope you’re less neurotic about it than I am.
You may have to talk to experts. Which means you may have to ask for favors. You may have to ask them for moments of their time. You may have to go so far as to buy them a coffee to get them talking. The information that a legitimate expert has will be priceless to the development of your work-in-progress. Who knows, you may even make a new friend in the process.
“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”
― Kurt Vonnegut
You may have to question yourself constantly. That is, you’ll have to do this more than you do already. If you are going to write what you don’t know, then you need to check and recheck those facts. This is especially true in historical fiction. The readers of your books will know exactly when the bustle made an appearance in 19th-century fashion. Don’t assume that you can get away with saying your heroine went to the ball in 1831 wearing one.
You may have to ask more of your beta readers. If you restrict your setting and subject matter to only what you know, then your early readers will assume that you were there, or you experienced it. They will look at you as the authority. But if you venture outside of what you know, then you’ve given your early readers more freedom to question you. Listen to all they have to say. They may see a flaw you haven’t noticed.
One of the biggest argument for writing more than you know is that it gets you outside your comfort zone. Writing what you don’t know is a little unpredictable: you and your readers can potentially discover something about the world you didn’t know anything about.
Go as far as you want, don’t be afraid. Make this story yours.
If you liked this post, you may also like
Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.