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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Writing what you don't know

Despite the torrent of angst-ridden teen writing inspired by it, "writing what you know" is, generally speaking, not bad advice. In a world of writer advice ranging from horrid to this blog (yes, I am opposed to implying humbly that this blog is a perfect 10 -- I clearly deserve it, did you notice how much effort I put into not splitting that infinitive?) this bit is more beneficial than most.

The benefit of writing what you know is that it really allows you to flower, to show off your prowess, to demonstrate your command of character and story and emotion. Writing about love is easier when you've been in love. Same for heartbreak. The same for jumping out of a plane, or strolling around London, or cooking a pheasant. When you know these things, you can talk about them with poise and eloquence and ease.

And yet again, the writer writes a writer. (I don't know why this fellow is sitting a a two-legged desk on a two-legged
 chair whilst having one leg and one arm. I have even less of a clue as to why he is using the world's tiniest 1998 iMac)
But writing what you know is also a very limiting box, especially for us genre-authors. I love my life, and I'm sure you some of you have perfectly charming lives as well. But come on -- I work in a cube. Whenever someone asks me what my job is, I have to take a deep breath and hope they know what I'm talking about without me having to explain. This life is good to me, and all, but it's not good for writing. I've never used a sword or trained a horse or used magic or been hopeless torn between two lovers who are completely smitten with me for no good reason. The pieces of your story that make it fun and exciting and engaging and all of that good stuff may not be things you can draw from your life. Besides, your characters are not you, and the novel is not your autobiography. At some point, our characters are going to be faced with experiences or relationships or tasks of which we know nothing. And what do you do then? How do you write what you don't know?

Look, don't be that guy who just wings it. Perhaps there's something admirable about throwing caution to the wind and saying, "Good enough!" and just imagining what it might be like to take a 30-month journey on a Spanish ship in the early 18th century without any base of knowledge about sailing or the ocean or Spain or the 1700s. But eventually someone who actually knows something about these things is going to call bullpucky on you. That's no fun for you. And it's no fun for the readers when somebody who hasn't interacted with a 5-year-old since they were 5-years-old tries to write dialogue for a child. My God. IT IS NO FUN.* Badly written kids are the child actors of literature. YECH.

Not bad characters, but as I was trying to think of bad child acting to demonstrate my point,
nothing came to mind faster than any of the kids in the first HP movie. Thankfully, they improved.

If you're going to attempt to write something you have no knowledge about, then there is only one thing to do: research. You're either going to need to acquire the necessary knowledge/experience, or study it sufficiently enough to fake it. Watch movies, read books, catch a documentary, read a paper, talk to somebody who actually knows what they're talking about. I'm not saying you need to read The Horse Encyclopedia just to be able to write about riding a horse (btw -- totally made that title up, but of course it exists), but maybe get back in contact with Horse-Girl from high school and see what she has to say.

Basically -- get creative. Find ways to learn that aren't necessarily just opening an instruction manual. And don't be afraid to have your character venture into uncharted territory. It can be risky, but the payoff might be huge. At the very least, you'll learn something new. You might make some mistakes, but if Star Trek can still have Trekkies with all of the inconsistencies and blatant contradictions then your readers can forgive you.**

* I'm looking at you, Charles Dickens. Did you ever even know a child in your life? Wikipedia tells me you had 10 children. The only plausible explanation is that you perhaps didn't even know you had children and locked yourself in your study whenever you were home. Or perhaps you had a second house just for you. I don't know, I'm not a historian. I'm just a very annoyed reader.

**Disclaimer: I love Star Trek.

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