Write About What You Don’t Know
Some corollaries to this are that, yes, you definitely SHOULD:
Write about things you know.
Write about what interests you.
I don’t mean to say that ALL you should write about are things that you don’t know about. Did Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child know much about the NYPD, the FBI, and retrovirus-induced mutations when they began writing Relic, which went on to spawn the bestselling thriller series about the mysterious Agent Pendergast?
Absolutely not. They had to do a lot of research.
As did the writers of Pulp Fiction, The Great Train Robbery, The Ghost and the Darkness, In the Heart of the Sea, The Radium Girls, and countless other works of the page and screen.
In many cases, maybe you know a lot about something, but you want to go on a deep dive and learn more. As in everything else. Take David McCullough’s 1776, and so many other powerful volumes of historical reverie.
A writer’s life is all about soaking up a lot of knowledge, synthesizing it and then outputting it in a way that resonates with others.
Writers are translators of experience.
If you’ve done or seen something amazing, or something that is simply unique enough that you feel other people need to know about, you — as a writer, as an artist — have an obligation to record it. This experience is different for every writer, every one of us, and that is what makes it special. That’s what makes it art.
So you show others your world, your imagination, and then that audience takes in what you gave them and makes it their own.
But that is only the start…
What I mean by “write what you don’t know” is that your own experiential journey isn’t all chance. It’s not just that you were born into a nightmarish world like Anne Frank. She felt a desire to keep a record of it. She made a choice that echoed across generations and helps us understand a dark past.
For example, say you found some inspiration in the documentary Making a Murderer. You’ve been outlining a murder mystery story of your own and are now keen on discovering as much about forensics as possible in order to lend your writing an air of authority and realism.
It’s time to LEARN.
Research. Tear through all of the free sources you can find online first, but never stop there. Go to an actual, honest-to-goodness library and jump into the card catalogue and the stacks. Smell the paper and glue.
Nothing beats going to a library when you need to find books.
Yes, Amazon’s algorithms will show you books that may interest you based on your current searches, but in a library the act of finding one book can lead you to uncovering treasures that you may never see on Amazon or in any digital form. Maybe it’s a book from the early 1900’s about the Jack the Ripper that was never digitized in any format. Just as with Forrest Gump’s “box of chocolates”, you never know what you’re gonna get if you delve into the ancient shelves of institutions that have been around for over a century.
Next, you need to talk to people.
You’re not an expert yet, so now you need to find some experts. Look for online discussion forums for your subject. Use services like Meetup to find folks that might know a lot about what you want to know more of.
Connect. Interact. Schedule some interviews or just start a conversation, and eventually come around to the fact that you’re a writer and you’ve been working on this project that’s so interesting and….
And finally, you need to GET OUT THERE.
When it comes to learning more and understanding a particular subject, immersing yourself is perhaps the most effective thing you can do. For a crime story, shadowing police officers or detectives (or even private investigators or bounty hunters) might give you some insights, as well as pure color, for your tale that you couldn’t have found in a book.
Is your story set in Bucharest? Well, then, get on a plane to Romania if you can.
Maybe your crime occurred in the tiny town of Angie, Louisiana. You won’t be able to write very faithfully about that culture if you don’t go there.
Move around and be a witness to the world as it is. Become one of those coveted “primary sources” yourself.
I still remember my grandfather’s stories about guarding German prisoners during World War II and teaching Japanese children English in post-war Tokyo. The stories, honestly were not terribly exciting. But he told them from his point of view, and they were real. They were reminisces someone could only have if they had been in those places, doing those things, at those times.
Writing about Manhattan based on Google Maps and an (admittedly) endless supply of online images and written accounts in every medium can be a great display of research.
But writing about Manhattan on one particular day in midsummer when the deep red and gold sunset aligns just perfectly with the city’s grid and you feel a shiver suddenly course down your spine as the first drops of a late-day shower fall on your skin… That can only happen if you were there. Otherwise, whatever words you might string together are without a context in reality. They’re words anyone could devise.
If you write from a frame of what you actually experienced, you’ve created something totally unique.
So write what you don’t know.
And then do your work as a writer, learn and feel something new, put it in context, and share it with the rest of us.
Thank you for reading and sharing!