Writing What You Don’t KnowOctober 29, 2009 at 7:46 AM | Posted in Writing | 5 Comments
“Write what you know,” the old adage advises – but what if you have a great idea for a story that centers on something you know nothing about? Should we limit ourselves to our experiences (which are probably rather mundane, considering none of us are really CIA agents or wizards in disguise…that I know of) or risk a gaffe by dabbling in the unknown?
In reality, authors write about what they don’t know all the time. How? By extrapolating from what they do know. Fantasy writers may not know what it would feel like to ride a flying horse, but can approximate the sensation from experiences riding more mundane animals or even flying in airplanes in turbulent weather. In some ways, they (we) have it easy. If no one knows what a yeti smells like, a writer can claim that they give off a rose-like perfume without fear of contradiction.
But what about things other people have experienced, especially those for which an unrealistic depiction might be embarrassing or offensive? What about straight authors writing about gay characters, females writing about males, or someone from one religion writing about a character who is a devote member of another? Or (to bring this post back to the theme of the blog) teens writing about adults (or visa-versa)?
As a girl who writes from the point of view of at least as many males as females from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, I must admit that I sometimes feel conflicted. Am I doing justice to my characters? While I interact with people of every race, gender, age, etc. on a daily basis, I can never know what they are really thinking, feeling, or experiencing. Then again, how can I know if my experience as a 5’ 5.5” American 17-year-old with nerdish tendencies is representative of the experiences of other people who happen to fall into that demographic? Unless I am planning to write an autobiography (not likely), every word I put down on the page will involve some degree of guesswork.
What do you think? Do you ever write from a point of view that differs significantly from your own? Are there any disadvantages or dangers in doing so? Any rewards?