Throwdown Part 2: Write What You Don’t Know

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.

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23 Responses to Throwdown Part 2: Write What You Don’t Know

  1. Carrie says:

    I’d say I am in the write what you don’t know camp considering my current WIP deal with a magic mirror that transports you to alternate realities and a girl who discovers she’s actually faerie when she believed she was human.
    But even saying that , I still think that writing fantasy, sci fi, futuristic apocalypse you still “know” a heck of a lot in order to write it. You are aware of the basics of how a society functions even though you are creating new rules.

    • When I was thinking about the blog I decided that I truly write what I know, even though I made it all up. My “other world” is like a real world to me. Thanks for letting me get that out there, Carrie.
      -Fae

  2. Sharla Rae says:

    Oh Bravo, Fae! You make an excellent case. It’s the emotions and the characters that counts and if an author can suspend disbelief, she or he is truly gifted.

  3. maria grace says:

    I agree, that is the same reason why I write Science Fiction and Fantasy as my primary genre. I am also doing some historical fiction but the research it takes some days makes me crazy. So on the days I can’t stand to do one more google search for information, I write SF.

    On the other hand, people are still people, even if they’re aliens, on other planets or space ships. You can’t get away without knowing how people work and still write a compelling story.

  4. Right on, Fae. I think we should always have strong elements of things we don’t know in our stories. How else would you get to do all that distracting research. I remember packing plates, cups, and such stuff in old newspapers and stopping for hours on end reading the old newspapers.

    • My friends sometimes despair with my forays into what I call my “archival memorabilia.” It’s fun to look at old stuff–as long as I have no agenda (eek-research!) while I’m looking.
      -Fae

  5. I can totally relate to everything you said. I write sci-fi and love making up my own worlds and my own rules. I also write historical western romance, so I do research into that period. It’s the best of all worlds.
    Thanks for your wonderful blog today.

    Cynthia Woolf Blog

  6. Fae, I fall into Carrie’s response. The underlying concept of Tolkein or Rowlings, the sense of all fantasy fiction is acutally all of what we already know. No matter the world or setting, whether in outer space or in a strange “brave new world,” we are always writing what we know. You might want to win the throw-down, but in a sense, you and Laura are more in agreement than not. Good sci-fi and fantasy fiction takes the basic elements of the world we know and transports them to “other” worlds. Think Gene Roddenberry and his amazing travels through space, to go where no man has gone … he took the basic tenants of the human condition, put them on a Starship and powered to warp speed. You want license not to have pesky facts and figures wear you down, but you can deny that no matter where or who or how … the basic human emotions and struggles are the same. I bet you have lots of drama and sadness in your new worlds.

    Doesn’t matter. You both win this one🙂

  7. Mary Metcalfe says:

    Wonderful blog!! I’m writing what I don’t know about too… 34-foot yacht sailing (vs. Sunfish at summer camp), Boston (which I’ve never been to), Alzheimer’s (which I hope I don’t have – ever), etc. With the internet, I have worlds of research at my fingertips and I LOVE to do online research. As long as our characters stay in character and experience emotions that resonate with their beliefs and values, we can spin a story that has little to do with our own lives/experiences. Bottom line, we write for what our characters know… it’s all about them and their life/world/reality. JMHO

  8. Julie Glover says:

    Loved this post! I think we write about people and emotions and relationships and conflict — which we do know. But we can write about them in whatever setting we choose. Having written a novel in which my protagonist commits a crime, I sure hope I don’t need to go out and get a criminal record to have nailed my character. I defer to Albert Einstein’s quotation: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

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  11. Yvette says:

    Yay! Well done Fae. Yes I am firmly in your camp as you can probably tell by now.
    I write fantasy for middle-grade level and right from when I was a little child, my imagination was the best place I could hang out. I too read the article be Mr. Johnston (last year) and was so heartened by it I took down some of the quotes. He gave me such juice! Just the back up I needed when I too had weathered my fair share of writing teachers who had looked down their noses at the horrific notion of writing what you don’t know. I think you’ve put your points very well. For me, I have no attraction to writing about humans on earth, doing life as I know it. In fact the whole notion bores me senseless. The idea of having to write under the duress of being politically correct, skirting religious words, or motifs, genders, races, or any of the other 101 things people could potentially take offence to, makes my creativity freeze rock solid. I could no more write about things like that than I could fly to the moon. But once those fetters are taken down, and my imagination allowed to take off into the wide blue yonder then I can fly to the moon and back and anywhere else I damn well please. And it’s exciting, and it’s satisfying, and it’s what keeps me working year after year, no matter what, because I love it.🙂
    Yvette Carol

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