Write What You DON’T Know!

Back on the third of June, Miss Rosemary posted a blog entry entitled Write What You Know. I’m here, not to counter it exactly, but to expand upon it.   I know, it’s taken me a lifetime getting this posted, but life exploded, and let me tell you… the hunt for the article I got this from was a nightmare.  I give full credit to Ms. Holly Lisle, who has taught me so many things over my years trying to write seriously.  Her site, wisdom, and encouragement has been with me since I was a sophomore in high school, and I appreciate everything that she’s offered the writing community.

Write what you know.  Seriously.  It’s absolutely critical that you draw from your own experience when you’re writing.  It makes your characters, settings, senses, and story so much more believable when there’s a human connection and experience linked to it.  I would never tell anyone to abandon writing what they know.  That would be ignorant and stupid.

What I do want to say is that: what you know is incredibly limited. I don’t care who you are, you can’t possibly know everything to muddle through certain parts of writing.  You don’t have to have been a corrupt general of the US Army to write about a corrupt general of the US Army.  One of the many amazing things I love about writing is that it forces you to learn, to research, to better yourself intellectually to take that leap into believable fiction.

Combine your experiences with research.  If you aren’t willing to research, you’re going to look stupid.  You’ll end up showing a 14th century Scottish Highland woman drinking coffee one morning as she stands looking out of her door.  We don’t want that ridiculosity, do we?

‘Ridiculosity’ is a word.  I penciled it into the dictionary myself.  You’re welcome.

In any case, a writer’s job is not just to write, but to give the reader a sense of reality beyond their own.  (Holly Lisle even suggests reading quantum physics books to build a better system of magic.  I’m not quite so gung-ho, but you get the idea. =P)  Read fiction and non-fiction.  Science, history, and philosophy.  Religion, romance, plays, and poetry.

Read and research so that writing what you don’t know once again falls into the realm of writing what you do know.


Filed under Uncategorized, Writer's Group, Writing

17 responses to “Write What You DON’T Know!

  1. Erin M

    Extremely well put =] It always bothers me when people tell you you should only write from experience. Hello? How boring!

    I agree that drawing on your own experiences (or interviews with others) is crucial in making a story believable.

    But someone, maybe it was Shannon Hale, put it this way: you should write about what you want to know and are willing to research.

    . . . Which is pretty much what you said . . .

    Anyway, great post, Kit! ^_^

  2. Raymond

    Agreed. if i wrote only from my own experience my story would be extremely limited and really kinda dull.haha good job

  3. I completely agree. I wholly believe in doing research for writing certain things (not that I’ve done it much yet… But I haven’t gotten deep enough into any of my novels – if you can call them that – so that I need to). But anyway, I also agree that no writer can know everything they’re writing about straight off – if so, then they’re writing an autobiography. The wonderful thing about writing is, indeed, learning new things in order to put them into characters you want to be or want to hate or want to be friends with or want to look down on. Writing is a little like acting in the sense that research combined with your own personal style go into building a proper character and scene.

  4. unabridgedgirl

    If I could explain how much research I have done on goblins and faeries lately? It is pathetic. Information overload!

    • You’re supposed to be in DE-stress mode! DE-stress! Goblins and faeries are fun, though. At least you aren’t reading a very dry text book on the French colonization of Africa or something. Faeries and goblins make for magic and mischief…. and that’s good times. Until your brain explodes. Best to avoid that last bit. =]

  5. Nice “counter” post! “If you’re not willing to go reasearch you end up looking stupid.” Well said. I hate research myself (odd for a history major) but research can also come in the form of reading other fiction on the same topic. Or going to a museum. Or listening to a song … none of which you really intrinsically know. Not knowing is essentially the heart of fiction, I think. That’s why people read the books. Unless it’s your all-time fave, you wouldn’t read a book you alread know the ending of.

    • Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be reading. There are some pretty creative ways to learn out there. (I love museums. And places like Old Sturbridge Village. They make me squee.)

      Kind of makes me wonder though…. you don’t see many people reading the same book twice, but they’ll watch a movie 40 times, until they can recite the dialog. Odd.

  6. “‘Ridiculosity’ is a word. I penciled it into the dictionary myself. You’re welcome.” That had me laughing, because I do that all the time :) Research is important. Writing is about expanding our own knowledge, too, after all.

  7. Lua

    “Ridiculosity”? Thank you for that one :)
    When we write something we don’t know, it shows. Period. No matter how smart we try to sound or how many big words we use, the reader can always tell and as a reader, I know how much of a turn off that is…
    But writing only what you know is kind of boring… So here is the best part of writing fiction; you get to learn new things all the time! When you decide to write about earthquakes, you don’t necessarily have to know everything about them at that point but once you decide, you have to do your research and know everything there is to know about them.
    Great post Kit! :)

    • Exactly! I don’t know how many books I’ve read (especially historical fiction/fantasy) that hits me in the face with something that’s clearly not taken from fact. I always think “Ugh, would it have killed you to at least have read a Wikipedia article on it first?” Learning is half the fun! Even if you learn the bare minimum to get by! Learn something before you write it!

      Absolute awesome points. =] <3

  8. junebugger

    Very very well put. It’s possible to write what you don’t know at all through research. But your writing ends up being detached and dry because you’ve had no emotional connection to that experience you’re writing about. But then, to write based on only what you know, that is indeed limiting. So, as you put it, write what you know and broaden your scope through research.

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