by Fae Rowen
When Laura Drake originally suggested this topic months ago I knew I would be on the “don’t know” end of the throwdown. Everyone else at Writers in the Storm writes about what they know. With Sharla Rae’s historicals, she researches and researches until she has notebooks filled with information. Jenny Hansen writes about people and things she knows, changing names to protect the innocent. Laura writes about women going through life’s trauma and coming out the other side, which she’s done. Very well.
Me? I write about anything that interests me. I write about unknown planets, alien species, space battles, and future societies. Hmmmm. Never been to any of those places and I don’t have a time machine. And I have no military flying experience where I’ve fired on other planes–or space ships. Yep, I write what I don’t know.
That’s not what writing teachers tell their classes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told to write what I know, that writing anything else is dangerous. Yes, I never learned that lesson.
Let me tell you why I write science fiction.
• If I wrote a contemporary, I’d have to have everything correct. Fashions, cars, restaurants. What if I had my characters eating poppers before they were invented? Every reader would let me know. As a mathematician I have this thing about being right not wrong. Because in my “other” professional world if you’re not right, you’re wrong. All wrong. There is no gray.
• If I wrote historicals, I would have to do research. Now, I’m good at research. Even extensive research. But it’s not my favorite thing to do. For instance, I think the absolute best hero in a romance book is a Regency hero. Give me a titled rake, or even a non-duke, and I can turn starry eyed and fall in love. But would I ever try to write a regency. Ha!
Regency readers know what houses were on what streets in Mayfair and every other part of London and the entire English countryside. They know what dishes were served for every course of casual and fancy party meals. I think they even know how to play whist. They know their social history and if a writer transgresses on details, it’s pistols at dawn.
• I’ve been through my share of life’s travails. It’s not cathartic for me to rehash the journey. I’m not good with tears, but I’m very good at forgetting how bad something was, so I just can’t capture my angst and emotion on the page.
I write what I don’t know. I imagine a world and a couple of characters. I imagine what the society on the world would be like. Who can tell me I’m wrong, as long as the “rules” of the society are coherent and work for that setting and people? Well, maybe someone. Let me digress for a quick story.
When I was speaking at a conference about an activity from a textbook I co-authored, I talked about how I developed the lesson. A man in the back of the packed banquet hall jumped up and interrupted me. “You stole that lesson from the textbook I use. You’re lying. You didn’t make it up.”
After the audible inhale of the audience I asked him what textbook he used. He waved it high above his head. It was my book. I told him I was one of the co-authors and thanked him for using the book and understanding my lesson so well. After the session he sheepishly brought the book to the podium and asked if I’d autograph it.
I’ve never been part of a society made entirely of convicts. I personally know only one white-collar felon. But I’m writing a trilogy on their world. How can I do this?
Well, I do understand what people need to survive. And I can imagine what I would do when faced with having to fight for my sustenance. Alliances, betrayals, codes of conduct, rituals, discoveries are all open territory for exploration. As long as I can thread logic through the backstory that produced such a social climate, I can build a world that my reader can connect with and believe. That means there are rules–physical and societal–which can’t be broken, even if that might make my job as a writer easier.
Building those worlds and defining those rules–that’s the fun part. Want an alien native to your world? Want it to be bigger than humans? No problem. Look at the other alien life on the planet and the plants and make a picture in your mind. Make sure your creature has a food source and a habitat, possibly with one or both in conflict with the human population if you want another layer of tension in your story.
How did the people get there? Why do they stay? What is the level of their technology? Oh, you can have fun with this one and make up all those cool tech items you wish you had right now.
As a kid I had to walk everywhere. Long stretches of sidewalk. I developed a whole moving sidewalk society before I ever read a science fiction book, just because I got tired of walking an hour to my piano lesson every week.
Do I know all the science behind any of my “inventions”? Nope. Not my job. That’s a fun project for the engineers. I like to think that writing about what I don’t know allows my readers to use their imaginations to explore the “unknown” setting and society. And to say, “That’s cool. I wish we had that now,” as the story unfolds.
In my despair at being on what I perceive as the losing end of this throwdown from the get-go, I googled “writing what you don’t know.” Surprise, a screenwriter has written a book on the topic. Julian Hoxter’s book, Write What You Don’t Know,
is internationally popular and has been translated into Chinese. Makes sense, though. You may not have lived through the world’s worst divorce, but you can imagine the emotions and possible situations, decide whether you want to go the dramatic route or the comedy route, and write what you don’t know. I could see that really working for comedy.
Screenwriters can’t have lived through all the things they dream up for movies nowadays. But they can imagine, and imagination is the bottom line for writing what you don’t know. “Imagination is the ability to form a mental image of something that is not perceived through the senses. It is the ability of the mind to build mental scenes, objects or events that do not exist, are not present or have happened in the past,”says Remez Sasson. We’ve all got an imagination. Think you don’t? Just spend an afternoon playing with a child. You’ll see.
Bret Anthony Johnston is the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University. Here’s a link to a piece he wrote in The Atlantic magazine on “why fiction’s narrative and emotional integrity will always transcend the literal truth.” He makes an eloquent case for stepping outside the bounds of what you know when you write.
Yes, I write what I don’t know. And that can be scary and difficult at times. There are no definitive roadsigns marking the territory. But no one else knows it either, until I write about it. And that’s the real beauty of writing what I don’t know.
Where do you fall in this throwdown? Do you write what you know or do you write what you don’t know? Or a little of both?
On Friday we welcome debut author Ruthie Knox, who will share tips on writing and selling your first book.