Write What You Don't Know

That’s certainly not the advice you usually hear, but think about all the people who write what they don’t know. How about J.K. Rawlings? Do you think she really knew about wizards, magic, and a school of wizardry? Or the Twilight series, did that author have first hand knowledge about vampires and werewolves? I don’t think so.

What they both did know though was about young people and how they think and act whether they might be fledgling wizards or vampires or werewolves. What we all must know when we’re writing any novel is the human condition and how people react to all sorts of disasters and calamities. What will someone do to reach a goal? We use what we do know and our personal experiences and build on that with our imaginations and necessary research.

What you are going to do is take what you know and use it to write what you don’t know.

When you decide what kind of book it’s going to be, you have to develop your characters, a protagonist the reader will want to follow on his or her journey. That protagonist can certainly have faults, but he or she must also be likeable. With characters we will probably draw on what we’ve experienced, people we know, those we like and those we dislike. In many cases, the hero or heroine may resemble the author in many ways.

What if you want your hero to have profession that you know nothing about? In that case, you’ll have to do enough research so what you write about the hero and his job—even if it isn’t a major part of the story—sounds realistic. For a mystery writer who writes about police procedure enough research must be done so it relates to real procedure. Wherever the story is set, that procedure must match how it’s done in that particular area. Police procedure is not universally the same.

Lawyers often complain about courtroom dramas as being unrealistic. Partly because when authors write about a courtroom scene they leave out a lot of the boring stuff. Again, if a courtroom scene is necessary to your plot, find out from someone who knows the correct way for it to evolve—then make your changes to fit the story.

A lot of mystery authors are writing hobby cozies—cozies that revolve around the heroines’ hobby, be it knitting, scrapbooking or whatever. However, you really don’t have to know about the hobby you pick. I know an author who writes knitting mysteries that even has project directions and she doesn’t knit. She learned what she needed to know through research and has a friend who gives her the knitting directions to include in the book. One author has a mystery that revolves around cooking and she once confessed that she didn’t cook herself.

Setting. Does it have to be somewhere you know about? Not necessarily, but if it’s a real place and you haven’t been there for awhile, you better check to make sure things haven’t changed a lot. Today, there are many ways to check.

If you’re writing about a real town you can make some changes like creating a restaurant where none is.

If you make up a place, it needs to be in a recognizable part of the country and you should keep track of where you put things so they don’t turn up somewhere else a few chapters later.

When we only write what we know, we are limiting ourselves.

Consider writing from a male point of view if you’re a woman and vice versa. You’ll have to do some stretching and you won’t be writing what you know.

Of course it’s much easier if you do know what you’re writing about, but it should never keep you from developing a great idea.

The same with dialogue—you aren’t going to write dialogue the way we talk to each other. Though you want it to sound natural it has to move the story along or reveal character. The mundane every-day stuff needs to be removed. Listen to people around you talk, how do they sound? What makes each person sound unique? That’s what you want to add to your character’s speech, uniqueness.

Trust your imagination. Write an amazing story about life in an exotic location. What would it be like to be in a war?  How would you feel if your child was missing? Reach into the deep well of your emotions and give those emotions to your characters.

Study people. Stories are about characters, and characters exist within relationships. Everything you need to know about relationships, conflict and human condition is around you all the time. Bring that conflict into your writing.

Though you certainly can mine for ideas through your own personal experiences, a story isn’t a collection of facts. Write the best book you can, then go back and add specific fictional details in spots that need a lift. 

(This is the handout that went along with the presentation I gave at the Well Read Coyote Book Store in Sedona AZ last Friday night.)



Great suggestions. Write what you want to learn about - then do your homework!
We set our books in locations we enjoy. Our mysteries are set in Hawaii and we use real locations. Our anthologies are set in the fictional town of Aspen Grove, Colorado based on a couple off real towns. But it has to feel real and appropriate for the area. (The best test is that several of our fans have said they want to visit there!
My latest book, Ghost Writer, is set in and around Laguna Beach. That's practically next door to Dana Point where I live.
Whatever the setting, it's still necessary to visit to be sure that you are true to the area. The only thing readers will never forgive is if you mess up their home towns!
Thanks for your comments, Lorna. Well said.

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