How To Write What You Don’t Know

How many times does an individual writer hear, “Write what you know.” And conversely, if you write something–even completely fictional–and write it well, you get “When did you do that?” or even the dubious, “How could you have written that?” Look at the hubbub surrounding Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone (a painfully intimate account from the perspective of an overweight young woman)My recent review of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina remarks on his impossible ability to write from so many perspectives which I know he could not have lived, including the Kitty post-labor scenes.

During Camp NaNoWriMo, one of my cabinmates (a young writer, I might point out) shared a problem. She needed to write a kissing scene, but had no experience with kissing. I have to admit, when I first read the request for input, I had the knee-jerk reaction of, “Well, then you can’t write it.” But it took about five seconds of thinking before I realized that writers write every day and all the time about things of which they have little to no experience. It’s called fiction. And really, its what makes many great writers great; their ability to write empathetically when they have no business empathizing. Sure, as I said to her, first-hand experiences can make for wonderful, authentic writing. I suppose this is why we advise early writers to “Write what you know.” But from there, the world is our oyster.

So here is the breakdown of how to write what you do not know (which by the way, I highly recommend for both pleasure and craft):

If it is possible and beneficial, experience the thing. Travel is a great example. If you want to write about Ireland, go spend some time in Ireland and your writing will ring much truer. Keep notes, a diary, a journal. Experience deeply and fully and widely. To be honest, you only need a small range of experience at something to lend realism to your writing. Then, run the final product by someone who knows.

If it is not possible or beneficial (and much of the time it is not), read about it or watch a movie about it. Actually, read a lot about it or watch several movies or shows about it. Many writers can dive head-first into genre writing if they have read enough of it, because many writers are intuitive thinkers and absorb that sort of stuff like a sponge. Again, maybe you want to run it by someone who knows first-hand, just so you don’t come across too cliche or embarrass yourself.

Third, turn to your imagination. Say what? That’s right. Sit back, close your eyes, and imagine you are kissing a boy or embroidering or brushing long hair. Then ask yourself what each of your senses is telling you. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you feel (tactilely)? What do you taste? What are you thinking about? What memory comes to mind? Tap into the possibility that you have experienced those same universal things, both emotionally and physically, just in different contexts. Armed with those imaginary things, you can write quite a dilly of a whopper.

And when all else fails, make crap up. So maybe you don’t know what it’s like to grow up in the 70s in Connecticut. So make up a town, leave the time vague. If you think that’s the feel you are going for, let fiction be fiction. No one can argue with a town called Frumptious during the Jallymoo period, cause nobody’s been there, seen that, done that. And let’s not forget, that sometimes its the made-up stuff that really gets to the truth of the matter, anyways. Isn’t that why we fell in love with fiction in the first place?

So, trust your instincts as a writer. Always walk into a scene in your mind and explore all the senses, then tell them to us. And let beta readers tell you if something rings false. Fiction is fiction so that we, the spinner of stories, can be freed up to cut to the quick by whatever means available.



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