Writing What You Don’t Know

I’m sure many of you writers have heard the old adage, “Write what you know.” I have, over and over, but I’ve always wondered, what about us speculative fiction types? Are we supposed to enroll in NASA so we can experience a spacewalk before writing about life beyond Earth’s gravitational field? Should we don suits of medieval armor and traipse across the countryside looking for dragons to slay (and dodging the men in white coats)?

Of course not. Practical experience, where feasible, is a good thing. Knowing how to shoot a bow, load a gun, build a campfire, or catch your own dinner can add verisimilitude to your stories. But writers have a much more important—perhaps even sacred—duty to their readers. They must capture the imagination. Although the inclusion of details can help (in moderation), it’s not the whole story, if you’ll pardon the pun. A writer must be able to write what she or he doesn’t know, and do it so convincingly that ninety-nine percent of the readers will never know the difference. And the one percent who do may forgive you if you tell a good story along the way.

If I may use my humble self as an example, I can state categorically that I have never killed another human being (although the day is not yet over). So why choose an assassin as the main character of my novel? Sheer hubris? Because it seemed like a hoot? Okay, maybe a bit of both, but the main reason was because that was the character that fit the story. And through all the pages that followed, all the rewrites and edits and copyedits, I stayed true to my vision of that character. Beauty marks, warts, and all.

So what are the keys to writing what you don’t know?

Rule #1: Trust your imagination. You probably don’t know what it feels like to get onstage in front of ten thousand screaming people and entertain them with your syntho-guitar. But your rock star/private detective heroine does, so readers are going to expect you to show them how that feels. If you are a real-life musician with some stage experience, that might help. (And then I would ask, why write? Musicians get the girls/boys, the fame, and other recreations that authors have to pay for.) If not, you’re going to have to employ your imagination to put us into your heroine’s imitation leather boots. There have been amazing stories about life in exotic locations written by people who never left their hometown, riveting accounts of battlefield heroics penned by authors who never held a gun.

Rule #2: Study people. Stories are about characters, and characters exist within relationships. And everything you need to know about relationships and the human condition occurs around you all the time. What? You don’t see duels to the death with ray guns every day? Okay, but you witness conflicts, arguments, and maybe even the occasional utterance of profanity. In essence, these are duels, whether with words or laser pistols. Bring that conflict to your story. The forces that move us—love, honor, friendship, betrayal—are all around you.

Rule #3: Don’t lie to the audience. If I don’t know something, and I can’t research it (not my forte), then I try not to pretend that I do. But sometimes you have to walk a narrow line. Readers want to experience things they’ve never done. Things you’ve never done (and some you wouldn’t if you had the chance). There’s a difference between storytelling (make-believe) and deception. Make sure you know where you stand.

Personal experiences are a great way to mine for ideas, and the details you glean from them can add punch to your narrative, but a story isn’t a collection of facts. The best insider jargon and look-what-I-know details in the world won’t bail out a poorly-imagined story. Instead, write the best book/short you can, and then go back to add a few specific details in spots that need a lift, like adding a pinch of spice to a dish. Don’t want to go overboard and ruin the meal, but if you do it just right you’ll leave the reader with a taste for more.

Art of black dragon writing by Ciruelo Cabral


Jon Sprunk’s debut novel, Shadow’s Son (Pyr Books) was released in June 2010, and the sequel is due out this summer (2011). For more about his and his work, check out his website linked above.

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