Writing What You Don’t Know

October 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?



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  1. While we cannot know everything about what it’s like to be a certain race, gender, or religion, some things are universal. People all experience anger, sorrow, joy, and pain. The things on the inside are more alike than people sometimes give credit for. If you nail those aspects, you’ll have a much more believable character.

    If you’re concerned you might have gotten something wrong (ie: would a guy really say something like that?) have your MS read over by a person In that demographic and as them for their thoughts.

  2. I think “write what you know” is very limiting. Generally, I take it as applying to the emotional truth of what you’re writing, not the actual content. Write whatever the heck you feel like, then get a critique group who know what you’re trying to write about. (In my opinion, anyway.)

    By the way, this is an awesome blog! It’s always nice to know I’m not the only serious teen writer out there… and that there are some success stories! So I’m breaking out of my typical lurker’s shell to comment. Keep up the great blog, guys! :)

  3. A few weeks ago I had a long conversation with a guy who claimed that most people who work in tech-related fields fall somewhere on the autistic scale. IT peeps (and I guess artists of all description as well) have a certain affinity for repetitive and solitary tasks. I’m citing writing as a repetitive task for this example, as – unless you know differently – there are only so many ways a person can type.

    I thought the suggestion was a bit too broad when I first heard it, but I’m amazed at the number of people with ADD, OCD, Aspergers and other quirks who write. Being a geek falls in this heading as well. Racking up impressive (read: obsessive) levels of knowledge about books, comics, films, television programs or other entertainments is a manifestation of not just geekish tendancies but a mild mental illness. Now… I’m not so sure that anyone is 100% sane and level at a completely basic level.

    Not that that is a bad thing.

    I have OCD, insomnia and a knack for worrying, which assists in writing about things I don’t know. How? Well, I kinda get lost in what I’m writing, and take the whole “method writing” thing a bit more seriously than I should. I question every action my characters take, ponder motivation, association of events and believability in the worlds I create. The nerdish tendancies you say you have (and, really, it ain’t a big difference to most of my contemporaries, so don’t sweat it) will help in finding a way in to the lives of others.

    If you believe in what you are writing, then – hopefully – the rest of the world will buy into the fiction as well. This reply kinda says it all… I could have simply typed “I concur,” but my obsessive traits compel me to go into a long spiel whereby I eventually condense the meaning of the reply into two words. Adults, you will find, are like that… We’re all completely nuts…

  4. Great post, DK! And lovely response, bigwords! :)

    I’m left with very little to add, other than to say I’m notorious from writing what I don’t know. But I like writing what I don’t know. It’s much more fun to write about car thieves, shape shifters, and bombs than it is to write about breakfast, school, and Physics homework. And currently, writing what I don’t know gives me an excuse to watch M*A*S*H and call it research. ;)

  5. Great Post! The main thing to remember if you’re writing about something you’re not familiar with. RESEARCH RESEARCH RESEARCH.

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